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Lions Roar : September 2005
4 6 SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 experiencer. We cannot remove ourselves from the equation. No scientific description of the neural mechanisms of color discrimination can make one understand what it feels like to perceive, say, the color red. We have a unique case of inquiry: the object of our study is mental, that which examines it is mental, and the very medium by which the study is under- taken is mental. The question is whether the problems posed by this situation for a scientific study of consciousness are insurmountable—are they so damaging as to throw serious doubt on the validity of the inquiry? Although we tend to relate to the mental world as if it were homogenous—a somewhat monolithic entity called “the mind”— when we probe more deeply, we come to rec- ognize that this approach is too simplistic. As we experience it, consciousness is made up of myriad highly varied and often intense mental states. There are explicitly cognitive states, like belief, memory, recognition, and attention on the one hand, and explicitly affective states, like the emotions, on the other. In addition, there seems to be a category of mental states that function primarily as causal factors in that they motivate us into action. These include volition, will, desire, fear, and anger. Even within the cognitive states, we can draw distinctions between sensory perceptions, such as visual perception, which has a certain immediacy in relation to the objects being perceived, and conceptual thought processes, such as imagination or the subsequent recollection of a chosen object. These latter processes do not require the immediate presence of the perceived object, nor do they depend upon the active role of the senses. The question is, What defines this diversity of phenom- ena as belonging to one family of experience, which we call “mental”? I remember most vividly my first lesson on episte- mology as a child, when I had to memorize the dictum “The definition of the mental is that which is luminous and know- ing.” It was years later that I realized just how complicated is the philosophical problem hidden behind this simple for- mulation. Today when I see nine-year-old monks confidently citing this definition of consciousness on the debating floor, which is such a central part of Tibetan monastic education, I smile. These two features—luminosity, or clarity, and know- ing, or cognizance—have come to characterize “the mental” in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought. Clarity here refers to the ability of mental states to reveal or reflect. Knowing, by con- trast, refers to mental states’ faculty to perceive or apprehend what appears. All phenomena possessed of these qualities count as mental. These features are difficult to conceptualize, but then we are dealing with phenomena that are subjective and internal rather than material objects that may be meas- ured in spatiotemporal terms. Perhaps it is because of these difficulties—the limits of language in dealing with the sub- jective—that many of the early Buddhist texts explain the nature of consciousness in terms of metaphors such as light or a flowing river. As the primary feature of light is to illumi- nate, so consciousness is said to illuminate its objects. Just as in light there is no categorical distinction between the illu- mination and that which illuminates, so in consciousness there is no real difference between the process of knowing, or cognition, and that which knows or cognizes. In conscious- ness, as in light, there is a quality of illumination. Western philosophy and science have, on the whole, attempted to understand consciousness solely in terms of the functions of the brain. This approach effectively grounds the nature and existence of the mind in matter, in an ontologi- cally reductionist manner. Some view the brain in terms of a computational model, comparing it to artificial intelligence; others attempt an evolutionary model for the emergence of the various aspects of consciousness. In modern neuro- science, there is a deep question about whether the mind and consciousness are any more than simply operations of the brain, whether sensations and emotions are more than chemical reactions. To what extent does the world of subjec- tive experience depend on the hardware and working order of the brain? It must to some significant extent, but does it do so entirely? What are the necessary and sufficient causes for the emergence of subjective mental experiences? Many scientists, especially those in the discipline of neu- robiology, assume that consciousness is a special kind of physical process that arises through the structure and dynamics of the brain. I vividly remember a discussion I had with some eminent neuroscientists at an American medical school. After they kindly showed me the latest scientific instruments to probe ever deeper into the human brain, such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroen- cephelograph), and let me view a brain operation in progress (with the family’s permission), we sat down to have a conver- sation on the current scientific understanding of conscious- ness. 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 possibility 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 possible for downward causation to occur. Although, out of politeness, I did not respond at the time, I thought then and still think that there is as yet no scientific basis for such a cat- egorical claim. The view that all mental processes are neces-