At The Dalai Lama’s Science Conference…

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

The Dalai Lama saw the moon
Was not lit from within
He shared his observation
(To his tutors’ great chagrin)

Tibetan thought did not survive
Objective observation
The moon was not a lantern—
That was just imagination

This sparked his curiosity
And formed a strange alliance:
A Buddhist monk’s philosophy
And love of modern science

This skepticism surely might
Be called on to explain
How their use of introspection
Tells us beans about the brain

They call it looking inward—
That’s the purpose that it serves—
But the trick is that the brain itself
Is lacking sensory nerves!

We cannot feel our thinking—
To those processes, we’re blind;
So introspect your brains out, but
Beware of what you find.

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

So, yeah, the Dalai Lama (winner of the 2012 Templeton Prize in Science & Religion) hosted a science conference. The 26th Mind and Life Conference (this year’s theme: Mind, Brain, & Matter) invited scientists and Buddhist monks to join in scientific pursuit of an understanding of consciousness:

The examination is rooted in the personal story of the Dalai Lama. During his secluded training as a child in Tibet, he would gaze at the night sky through a telescope on the roof of the Potala Palace. He looked at the moon with such intensity he realized the shadows and asperities on its surface contradicted the Tibetan belief that it was lit from within. He took his findings to his tutors.

“When I told my tutors of my interest in science, they replied that it made sense,” said the Dalai Lama during his welcome speech to the conference. “However, although we have an interest in science, that doesn’t mean we have to devote all our energy to it. I spend the majority of my time in meditation on love, compassion and wisdom, which is the source of my interest in science.”

It’s perfectly understandable that a meditating monk would want to understand consciousness. It’s also understandable that scientists would. Which makes it a bit strange that the confluence is, well, strange. But I guess we are used to science and religion having such very different, competing, and (often) mutually exclusive approaches to finding the truth. These monks, though, are not like, say, young-earth creationists:

The monks are Tibetan scholars from all monasteries who followed a multiple-year science course and are now asked by the Dalai Lama to compile what they learned into a book for their fellow monks. “These are monks who have spent from early morning to late night memorizing ancient texts, having them explained by wise elders and debating them long into the night,” says Rato’s abbot. “They had to leave behind Tibetan beliefs in place for centuries and apply the same strict discipline they had in their Buddhist studies to modern science.”

This is the strength of mind required of the modern monk, he says: a capacity for knowledge, open mindedness and debate, carried alongside the absolute belief in Buddha’s words.

That last bit does raise the question of whether this is a joining of science and faith, or a superb job of compartmentalization.

As for the scientists?

Responses from the scientists differed strongly.

Christof Koch, a University of California neuroscience best known for his work on consciousness, said we could speculate but ultimately we don’t know where it lies beyond the brain, its physical basis. He added that all mammals have consciousness but it is impossible to know where it lies (for example, our immune system can function without it).

Matthieu Ricard, the French monk who was a genetics scientist before taking up the monastic life, turned towards his Buddhist teaching more than his scientific past.

“By honest introspection, by following one line of inquiry which is pure experience,” one can reach an understanding of consciousness, he said.

Ricard then addressed the topic of reincarnation and some individuals’ ability to remember past lives.

Arthur Zajonc, a professor emeritus of physics at Harvard, doesn’t consider himself a Buddhist he said. Yet, he added, “I meditate and through that, have come to believe in the possibility of reincarnation.”

I’ve seen Koch speak before; his expertise is in the brain, of course, so it makes sense that he looks there (and that his expertise is there and not in the terra incognita he sees outside). Koch has also worked with Francis Crick, of “you are your brain” fame, (oh, yeah, and being a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), with which I very much disagree; again, it makes perfect sense that he looks to the brain for answers. Ricard and Zajonc, it appears to me, suffer from the very common problem among scientists: they take their well-earned scientific expertise to mean that they know what they are talking about in other areas. Their reliance on meditation and introspection (apparently the monks’ investigative methodology of choice) is fatally flawed: the brain, lacking sensory nerves, cannot feel itself think.

This, of course, is why we have such bizarre conceptions of “mind” as something ontologically distinct from matter. Imagine you could not feel yourself, say, walking. It would feel like you were magically floating from place to place (or perhaps teleported there in a flash?). You cannot feel yourself think; you only have partial access to some of the outputs of that thinking, and even then your access is both imperfect and subject to constraints of situation–were you even attending to that information at the time? (For those who have not seen it, looking around for examples of attentional blindness, or the art of the pickpocket, easily demonstrates the limits of our awareness.) Let us suppose that the extraordinary training of the monks allows them to attend to all of the outputs at once (very unlikely, but let’s go there)–they would still have no direct access to any of the processes that led to those outputs. And researchers like Koch are happy to tell us of how many interacting and/or parallel processes are at work in an active brain. The metaphors that come to me–diagnosing car problems without opening the hood, or diagnosing computer problems without the ability to see what any of the components are doing–all are considerably simpler than trying to figure out this extraordinarily complex, non-intelligently designed, meat-based data processor.
XKCD cartoon
(image: XKCD, of course)
From the point of view of the introspector, it feels like magic. The vocabulary we use to speak of consciousness, of course, precedes scientific exploration of consciousness, but still shapes what we expect to find, and what explanations we will accept as reasonable. It’s like asking how the sun climbs through the sky, and rejecting the notion that the earth turns. Magic begins to seem reasonable. As long as we’ve got magic consciousness, why the hell not have reincarnation as well? (BTW, the Times post mentions that quantum physics was a topic at the conference–at a “mind, brain, & matter” conference, this can only mean one thing–quantum physics was being misused, and can very likely be considered the modern vocabulary for “magic”.)

I’ve written more than I intended to, already. I’ll stop rather abruptly here. Oh, but I will note that the conference is available for viewing–11 looong youtube videos cover the morning and afternoon sessions of the 6-day conference. I’ll be looking through them at least a bit, to see if I am wrong.

I was wrong once before, and didn’t like it.

Mechanism, Contextualism, And The Limits Of Brain Science

Over at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Alva Noë writes about “Science And The Allure Of ‘Nothing But“, a topic near and dear to my hearts. Reductionism in science has led us to some frankly silly stances, but stances held and strongly defended by major players, and (probably, but I have not counted) a majority of those working–for instance, Francis Crick’s claim that “you are your brain”. We fetishize the brain–not a week goes by (or so it seems) that we don’t see some trivial aspect of human behavior get the official stamp of approval because some researcher has located an area in the brain associated with… lying, or love, or awe, or fear, or jealousy. Mind you, we already knew these things existed–indeed, the vocabulary of the “mind” long preceded our ability to look meaningfully into the brain, and so it makes no sense whatsoever to think that such a phenomenon could only (or even reasonably) be defined within that three pound mass of goo.

What Noë does not say (it is a piece for the general public, after all) is that a large part of our brain fetish has to do with the dominance of a philosophy of mechanism, wherein we use the metaphor of a machine (typically a clockwork, but Noë uses a car in this essay) to understand whatever it is we are looking at. We see how the bits go together, how this machine varies from that one in important ways, but that they are similar in others (averages and ideals are very important in this metaphor), and how some parts control other parts. The brain is a controller of sorts in this model.

Mechanism, however, is not the only philosophical stance science may use. Contextualism, or functional contextualism, looks at things through an entirely different perspective, asking different questions and demanding different answers. Rather than a machine, the metaphor is a behavior in its context–running is never just running, for instance, but exercise, or escape, or hurrying, depending on context. The same behavior or feature might be adaptive in one context and not in another, or different behaviors or features might exploit the same resource. Natural Selection is best framed contextually (which might be obvious by now), as is radical behaviorism and its offshoot molar behaviorism. As the article puts it:

You are not your brain. You are a brain, in a body, situated in an environment, an environment that includes other people, artifacts, as well as mere physical stuff. And when you are living, then you are in continuous interaction and transaction with the surrounding world.

Behaviors and populations extend across both time and space, and interact with an ever-changing and responsive environment. This is the world we live in, and this is the world in which our vocabulary about lying, love, awe, fear, and jealousy (and everything else) came to be useful. And yet, it is the discrete mechanisms of this brain area or that, that we are currently trying to reduce our experience to?

I still have grading to do, so I have already written more on this than I have time to. I will close with something from a while back, inspired by the beautiful photos of macropinna microstoma from 2009. If we had this fish’s head, maybe we could look inward to understand ourselves. But we do not, and so if we truly wish to understand ourselves, I suggest we start looking around instead.

I have no eyes to look behind
And view my brain, much less my mind;
I cannot know your thoughts, and you
Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
These are the facts; we can’t deny
We have no working “inner eye”
Nor any form of ESP;
Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.

The claim—that we can know ourselves—
Is countered by the miles of shelves
Of self-help books. Our knowledge hides
From where we’re told that it resides!
If we could simply take a look
Inside our minds, why need a book?
We’d never ask “How do I feel?
Could this be love? Could it be real?”

If God or Science offered me
Some cranial transparency
So you could see my every thought—
The change of mind; the urge I fought,
The censored comment never spoken,
Secret kept and promise broken—
What fabled treasures! Wondrous finds,
If we could read each other’s minds!

But we cannot. Make no mistake,
Our skulls and minds are both opaque
We do, instead, what we can do;
We read the things in public view
We see the song, the poem, the kiss;
Infer from these that love is this.
In turn, each element we find
We sum, and call the total “mind”.

If I could see inside my head,
(A place where angels fear to tread)
And see how thinking really works,
The jumble of selected quirks
And if (what wonders “if” can do!)
I saw inside your thinking too
I think that I should never see
What now makes up philosophy.

Absolute Truth(s)

It’s fun* sometimes, to look at what other people think atheists must think. I saw an example of this recently:

Atheists love to tell Christians we’re just about as atheistic as they are. We’re atheistic about millions of gods; they’re atheistic about millions plus one more.

Okay, it’s silly, but I’ll address it one more time.

If God exists, then God is an atheist toward all gods but himself. Therefore God, if he exists, is very nearly (within mere thousandths of a percent!) as atheistic as atheists are.

That’s where their logic goes. The mind reels.

[Read more…]


A small handful of commenters on my Rainbow Connection poll said they knew what I was getting after. Could be, actually. If you know me well, I’m pretty predictable. As a clue, a hint, to those people (and anyone else who wants to guess), I’ll refer back to a favorite verse, and my all-time favorite comment thread… after the jump: [Read more…]

When Alvin Plantinga’s Car Won’t Start

I got in my car, and turned the key;
The engine pathetically sputtered.
The idiot light on the dashboard blinked,
And the idiot—me—simply muttered.

It’s Satan again, playing loose with my car,
With his telekinetic abilities
Or else it’s the work of a communist spy
Who’s engaging in open hostilities.

Or maybe it’s gremlins, or grumpkins, or trolls,
Which magically live in the wires
Or the spirits of dinosaurs, haunting the gas,
Or a practical joke by the tires

The Car Gods might hate me for riding a bike
It might be the chipmunks at play
It could be I parked with the car facing South
And it messed with my auto feng shui

I questioned a psychic, a healer, a priest,
And I’m worried, and starting to panic;
My view of reality just took a hit…
And I might have to call a mechanic.

Context here.

Since We’re Coming Up On Thanksgiving…

Another oldie. Sorry. But I want you to donate to food banks, before thanksgiving. (non USAians, I just want you to be good people.) This verse, from a year and a half ago, examined motives. At the time, people were concerned that the reason that people donated to food banks was somehow more important than the fact that they do so. I disagree. If you can, please do donate. If you get some sort of reward, or tax break, or special dispensation from the pope, so much the better. If we can make it easy to be good, shouldn’t we? (the penultimate line comments on the notion, expressed by some but not all humanists, that human nature can be trusted to lead to good behavior. I disagree, which is one reason I am not a humanist.)

If we only take donations
With the purest motivations
And our shelves remain half-empty, it’s the hungry folks who lose.
If the sponsors can afford it,
There’s good reason to reward it!
And the altruists can turn their prizes down, if they so choose.
Do not make it any harder
Than it is, to stock a larder,
With a view of human nature based on freely-chosen good!
I don’t care if it looks greedy,
If it helps the poor and needy–
The alternative is hunger, till we give “because we should”.
If a prize or recognition
Brings donations to fruition–
“I’ll increase my odds of winning if I donate lots of tins!”–
You can say that it looks selfish;
I’m not humanist, I’m shellfish!
When we pay for good behavior, sometimes everybody wins!


Could a rock achieve awareness, if its faith was strong enough?
(Clearly, faith would be the only way, since logic might be tough)
Could a frog achieve enlightenment? What argument convinces?
(It’s established in the literature that magic makes them princes)
Could a man conceive of heaven, while he’s here on earth, below?
Might his faith be mere delusion? How is man supposed to know?

As I’ve said elsewhere, after watching John Haught’s presentation, in his debate with Jerry Coyne, I thought Coyne should have simply taken the mic and said “See?”. (I see Ophelia Benson has just put up her own reaction, which sounds about right to me, too.)

Haught, I think, did a very good job of describing his view. The religious view he defends grew out of Plato’s notions of a hierarchy of existence, from matter to plants to animals to mankind to angels to god. The creatures on any given rung of the ladder cannot comprehend the levels above them, but may comprehend those below and beside them. The study of physics and chemistry, Haught notes, does not prepare one to speak of life, or mind, or god.

Unless I missed it, though, theologians are stuck here on the same rung as the rest of us.

Ah, but that’s where faith comes in. When you are aware of being in the grasp of something greater than yourself… that’s faith. Knowledge attained through faith cannot be spoken of literally; the language of symbol and metaphor is, however, appropriate.

Fortunately, sharing this “human” rung of the ladder with us are scientists who study human experience. Experimental psychologists, among others, can speak to the reliability of Haught’s “data”. (I wonder whether Haught chose to highlight physics and chemistry in order to draw attention away from the sciences that can and do meaningfully critique his view.) And it seems that our sensory, perceptual, memory and cognitive faculties cannot be counted on to winnow delusional chaff from heavenly wheat. Think about it–how could we possibly know which thoughts were false and which godly, unless we had some external way of knowing that we could compare our subjective assessment to?

Haught did, I think, a fantastic job of describing his world view. Unfortunately for him, by his own description, theology cannot be fact-checked against any evidence. Not only can it not be “objective”, it can’t even hope for intersubjective agreement. One person has a vision, and founds a church; another has a vision and sees a psychiatrist. The raw materials for both are the same.

Dawkins Flatters Jesus

No self-esteem deficiencies
For Dawkins, I can see:
“A man as smart as Jesus Christ
Would clearly think like me”


If Jesus was as smart as that,
He knew he was a faker—
A man as smart as Jesus was,
Today, would be Jim Bakker.

If Jesus heard the voice of god,
The man was not at all well
A man as crazed as Jesus was
Today, is Jerry Falwell.

If Jesus cleared the marketplace
He clearly had some stones
As power-mad as Jesus was
Today, he’d be Jim Jones

When Jesus led his followers,
His “church” was more a cult
Two thousand years of shepherding
And what is the result?

Two thousand years since Jesus led
His tiny little sect
And even Richard Dawkins treats
Lord Jesus with respect

Blasphemous rant after the jump: [Read more…]