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Lions Roar : January 2018
remember a discussion I had with some eminent neuroscien- tists at an American medical school. After they kindly showed me the latest scientific instruments to probe ever deeper into the human brain, such as fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and ECG (electrocardiograph), and let me view a brain opera- tion in progress (with the family’s permission), we sat down to have a conversation on the current scientific understanding of consciousness. I said to one of the scientists: “It seems very evident that due to changes in the chemical processes of the brain, many of our subjective experiences like perception and sensation occur. Can one envision the reversal of this causal process? Can one postulate that pure thought itself could affect a change in the chemical processes of the brain?” I was asking whether, conceptually at least, we could allow the pos- sibility of both upward and downward causation. The scientist’s response was quite surprising. He said that since all mental states arise from physical states, it is not pos- sible for downward causation to occur. Although, out of polite- ness, I did not respond at the time, I thought then and still think that there is as yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim. The view that all mental processes are necessarily physi- cal processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact. A crucial point about the study of consciousness, as opposed to the study of the physical world, relates to the personal per- spective. In examining the physical world, leaving aside the problematic issue of quantum mechanics, we are dealing with phenomena that lend themselves well to the dominant scientific method of the objective, third-person method of inquiry. On the whole, we have a sense that a scientific explanation of the physical world does not exclude the key elements of the field being described. In the realm of subjective experiences, however, the story is completely different. When we listen to a purely third-person, “objective” account of mental states, whether it is a cognitive psychological theory, a neurobiologi- cal account, or an evolutionary theory, we feel that a crucial dimension of the subject has been left out. I am referring to the phenomenological aspect of mental phenomena, namely the subjective experience of the individual. Even from this brief discussion, it is, I think, clear that the third-person method—which has served science so well in so many areas—is inadequate to the explanation of consciousness. What is required, if science is successfully to probe the nature of consciousness, is nothing short of a paradigm shift. That is, the third-person perspective, which can measure phenomena from the point of view of an independent observer, must be integrated with a first-person perspective, which will allow the incorporation of subjectivity and the qualities that characterize the experience of consciousness. I am suggesting the need for the method of our investigation to be appropriate to the object of inquiry. Given that one of the primary characteristics of con- sciousness is its subjective and experiential nature, any system- atic study of it must adopt a method that will give access to the dimensions of subjectivity and experience. A comprehensive scientific study of consciousness must therefore embrace both third-person and first-person methods: it cannot ignore the phenomenological reality of subjective experience but must observe all the rules of scientific rigor. So the critical question is this: can we envision a scientific meth- odology for the study of consciousness whereby a robust first- person method, which does full justice to the phenomenology of experience, can be combined with the objectivist perspective of the study of the brain? Here I feel a close collaboration between modern science and the contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, could prove beneficial. Buddhism has a long history of investigation into the nature of mind and its various aspects—this is effectively what Buddhist meditation and its critical analysis constitute. Unlike that of modern science, Buddhism’s approach has been primarily from first-person experience. The contemplative method, as developed by Buddhism, is an empirical use of introspection, sustained by rigorous training in technique and robust testing of the reliability of experience. All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings. The Buddhist understanding of mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation. Working models of the mind and its various aspects and functions are generated on this basis; they are then subjected to sustained critical and philosophical analysis and empirical testing through both meditation and mindful obser- vation. If we want to observe how our perceptions work, we The contemplative method is an empirical use of introspection sustained by robust testing. All experiences must be verifiable through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 60