Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

One of the things that interested me about Buddhism is that it might give me some insights into such philosophical problems as the 'Hard problem of consciousness', which is also related to the mind-body problem.

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

David Chalmers

Of course, although Buddhism makes use of philosophical discourse, it is ultimately existential in nature and so we should expect any answers to be existential rather than purely intellectual in nature.

The Buddhist resolution of such problems is less of a process of intellectual progress as a matter of the 'ironing out' and collapsing of the roots of the issue which are ways of thinking about reality which ultimately are deluded.

And perhaps I am being premature or naive but the more I investigate, the more it really does seem that many contemporary problems were solved by Buddhist sages and thinkers in the distant past (although I see some Buddhist sages and thinkers mired in the same sort of thinking or even greater confusion). Given that philosophers in the west rarely learn anything other than the history of western philosophy, and that Buddhism is regarded (and practiced) generally as a religion, it isn't surprising that there isn't much cross-pollenation.

With regards to the above problem, it seems to me that it arises from the assumed reality of objective existence:

1 Ultimately reality is objectively real and independent of our experience of it
2 From experiential evidence I cannot deny my subjective experiences
3 Therefore they must be part of reality
4 If my subjectivity exists then other people's subjectivity probably exists
5 Therefore they must all be part of objective reality
6 So how can a subjective something really exist within (and arise from) an objective reality?

So we end up with a picture of all these creatures walking around an entirely physical universe, but with little subjective bubble-worlds in their heads (or above them or somewhere else or nowhere at all). How do these two worlds interact? If one arises from the other, how? How could subjectivity arise from objectivity ever, even in principle? And if subjectivity is an ineffectual epiphenomenon, why does it make a difference when I stop making an effort?

Rather than try to solve this set of problems with its assumed premises, we can observe reality carefully with as few assumptions as possible. In Zen abstract thought is seen not as truth but as a bodily function, which at best has a practical use. Thoughts exist as representations of reality, but are only ever representations with a greater or lesser usefulness. In fact many of the more bizarre responses from Zen masters to philosophical questions can be seen as expressions of 'unasking' questions which are based on deluded premises, for example 'Mu', 'Katz!', 'the oak tree in the garden' or the act of placing a sandal on the head.

I remember a story that my philosophy tutor told us about G.E.M. Anscombe, the student of the famous linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who wrote extensively on the limits of language). During a conference of some sort, Anscombe was asked a question (how I wish I knew what that question was!) and she responded by removing her shoe in front of an international audience of philosophers and placed it on her head. Of course, without any grounding in eastern philosophy, most of the spectators (including my tutor) naturally assumed that she was batty. (Although Anscombe must have been elderly at this point, I have no reason to suppose that her mental faculties were failing. She was well-known for her intelligence and debating skills and famously won a debate against C.S. Lewis at Cambridge, forcing him to re-write a chapter of his book.) Anyone familiar with Zen stories will of course recognise this gesture as being identical to that performed by Joshu in response to a question from his master Nansen:

Once the monks of the eastern and western Zen halls were quarrelling about a cat. Nansen held up the cat and said, "You monks! If one of you can say a word [about ultimate truth], I will spare the cat. If you can't say anything, I will put it to the sword." No one could answer, so Nansen finally slew it. In the evening, when Joshu returned, Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu, thereupon, took off his sandals, put them on his head and walked off. Nansen said, "If you had been there, I could have spared the cat."


The response might be seen as indicating that which is beyond language. Interestingly Wittgenstein himself famously declared that all philosophical problems had their roots in our use of language. He later retracted this having apparently found exceptions and tacked those in his Philosophical Investigations, which I really must read sometime.

If we think of our deluded belief-systems as a tree, which needs to be killed, then growing new branches to kill off other branches is no good - it just leads to proliferation of branches. Instead we can grow an axe to chop down the entire tree and then destroy itself - this is the project of Nagarjuna as I understand him. Alternatively we can stop watering the tree - in other words, release the attachments or delusions that feed it.

Many Buddhists (especially the ones I come across online) seem to see Buddhism as being 'against' rationality - often replacing it with some sort of intuitionism. I think this is a misunderstanding. Buddhism isn't against thinking - we need abstract thought in our lives to help achieve practical goals; there are many influential Buddhist philosophers who used rationality as part of their practice (eg. Nagarjuna). The goal is not the cessation of thinking, rather the goal is freedom from attachments to thoughts, feelings, and so on. Thoughts exist and they are sometimes useful, but they are only ever thoughts - and the conceptual reality they tempt us to enter is a virtual reality.

In Buddhism, experiencing reality without inherent dualities and seeing those dualities as inputted is the important thing. But explaining things in such a way that they might shed light on complex rational problems still takes a whole lot of conceptualisation and a whole lot of words. Hopefully I'm up to the task and hopefully I'm not just throwing more wood on the fire.

Coming back to the Hard Problem of Consciousness, what I see is that the premise of the existence of absolute objective reality is unsound. If I pay attention, I can see that I never actually come across this supposed objective reality, only ever the idea of it. Yet I'm not proposing that we replace this with some sort of philosophical Idealism. If I hide an object, forget about it and then come back to it, it's still there. Things I know nothing of still have causal effects in the universe and (in the case of sense perceptions and psychoactive drugs) can influence the nature of mental phenomena in my mind. I can't change reality just by thinking about it.

While there are entities which outside of my awareness, that does not mean that they are independent of me or that I am independent of them. And if there is an independent objective universe, it is independent and thus not part of all this.

Materialism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'non-self' and is entirely independent of me and Idealism asserts that reality consists entirely of 'self' and is partly or fully dependent on me. But by claiming the universality of one domain or the other 'self' or 'non-self' neither damages self/non-self dualism, it just tries to squeeze the border off the map. This is doomed because 'self' and 'non-self' are interdependent concepts. How can a subject exist without an object to perceive? How can objective reality be real with no subject to ever know of or be influenced by its existence? What meaning does non-self have without the existence of a self? How much do we have to distort non-self to include the phenomena we now label as 'self'? And vice-versa.

Both Materialism and Idealism are only partial, distorted truths - attempts to unify reality without dispatching or deconstructing subject-object duality.

So what is the relationship between subject and object? The Buddhist view and a view which can be experienced in meditation, is that the distinction is inputted by thought. All phenomena are interdependent. The 'objective world' is just reality existing from the 'point of view' of another aspect of the same reality - the 'objects' of perception are just causative effects 'acting through' the other causative effects that are my sensory apparatus and my brain in an immense interdependent web without ultimate objects. Causality does not just flow 'upwards' from object to subject, but in every direction without end. My mind is just this moment of reality.

Reality is dependent upon observation. It has no 'Gods eye view' from which it exists. Nothing real is standing outside of reality to see it. It can only be viewed from inside and it only 'exists' in relation to other parts of itself. Even the description of reality as a set of relationships is not something that exists objectively, that image is just an abstraction, it exists always from a point of view - in relation to my reality at the time of writing and to your reality right now. But what is a point of view? A point of view is an abstraction - a model built from interpretation of effects of one part of reality upon another. A point of view of a landscape is just the sum of all the effects of each aspect of that situation upon a smaller part of that situation e.g.. all the light from a landscape as it affects a camera and an eye and a brain/mind.

What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

What does 'something it is like to be in them' mean? The word 'like' in this context is a term of comparison. In what way (if any) is being in a subjective state similar to something? It isn't so much that it is similar to something, but that it is something - it's real. This statement also presupposes the existence of a continuous identity which is 'in' various states. What if (as most current research on consciousness suggests) there is no 'Cartesian Theatre', no container for such states to exist in? nor a homunculus, an inner witness for these states? If only the states themselves and their effects exist then is there any philosophical problem?

All states - even the state of an unwatched beaker of water in an empty building - are part of the causal matrix of reality (see The Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory). Whether there are faculties to interpret these effects as information or not, no black box exists from which effects cannot spill so effects ripple out across the universe at the speed of light and we are all affected - it is 'like something to be in' every state. A problem arises only if we conceptualise reality in terms of categories which are independent of one another. For it to be 'like something to be in' a state is just to be contiguous with that state, to be affected by that state and (given that there can be no independent objects) ultimately to be that state.

My acts are irrevocable
Because they have no essence...
Where are the doers of deeds
Absent among their conditions?
Imagine a magician
Who creates a creature
Who creates other creatures.
Acts I perform are creatures
Who create others.


Originally published in my personal blog in 2006.
Photo by Gregory Colbert


  1. My head hurts, but in a good way... like when a hot chick punches you in the face, but you're glad she did it. Philosophy kicks ass.

  2. "My head hurts, but in a good way... like when a hot chick punches you in the face, but you're glad she did it. Philosophy kicks ass."

    HAHHAHAHAHAHAHHA Funniest thing I've read in awhile. :)

  3. That's the biggest compliment I've had about a philosophy essay ever!

    Sorry by the way guys that most of my stuff is re-posted. I simply don't have much time these days for blogging: my marriage, being a parent, DIY, my dog and my Zen practice all take priority.

  4. Justin, don't feel bad. I just started a new job, going through a move and my divorce, so my posting will be a little sporadic over the next couple weeks.

  5. In response to your six points- Objective existence is no existence. No existence is the container for all subjective existences. Zen practice is remembering the no in our everyday (subjective) lives. The uncomfortable part of this remembering is know that as far as my subjective viewpoint is concerned, when I die nothing exists.
    "Things are just as the are (objective reality), even when they are called something they are not.
    The letters C_A_T in themselves have nothing to do with the thing we call a cat. We just all agree that is it's designation because we call a dog something else. Words are arbitrarily agreed upon over time.
    If you can that thing on my head is a sandal and not a hat, I can as easily say that what you are holding is not cat, but dinner. Dr. Seuss? We can actually learn Zen practice with kid's books!
    The thing is not the word , that's why we need the word to talk to each other and distinguish between things. If there is only "is" or "is not", then we're stuck putting things into categories to justify one side or the other. And "is" has the upper hand every time because there is no "not".
    To me, if people don't know this yet and are only only sitting, then there is something other than Zen practice going on.
    This leads to a good future topic for those who say they are Buddhists. That being "What is doing good, really?
    The precepts need to be looked at differently.

  6. Hey, I realize you wrote this ages ago, but I am doing a school project and was curious.. I know this is a super general question, but I was kind of interested in whether you thought the above Buddhist account could be integrated with something like self-representationalist theories of consciousness? People like Owen Flannagan for example -- he is Buddhist and his work definitely makes lots of reference to Buddhist thought, yet I think he is also a (self?-)representationalist, and I was curious whether you thought it was at all possible for something like self-representationalism (or representationalism in general) to work together in a non-contradictory manner with the Buddhist view you've outlined above in your post.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, I know that the Sautrantika view is considered to be representationalist, and that this is critiqued intensely by the "higher" Buddhist schools of thought. According to the later schools, I just don't see how ANY kind of representationalist framework could possibly work without rejecting certain fundamental posits -- i.e., lack of inherent existence of self and phenomena. (I'm NOT trying to do East-West comparative analysis for my project or anything, but I'm very interested in Buddhist thought and curious how its view could open up new ways of thinking about the Western stuff I am reading.)

    Anyway, I'm definitely not expecting any sort of response, especially since my query is so random, but I'd love any quick thoughts.
    I enjoyed reading your post, thanks!

  7. When we are mindful of "something", that "something" is mindful of us too (note, the "somethings" lack inherent existence). When posing the question, "Is the moon there when I'm not looking," we also simultaneously pose the question, "Am I there when the moon is not shining?" Mahayana Sutras allude to a non-abiding awareness in which subject/object duality does not exist, and it is inconceivable in trying to understand it intellectually. The best way to experience it, even though it's always there, is through a subtractive process: see through the illusion of "I-me-mine" and live mindfully without the barrier of concepts that color the world. This is what Bodhidharma meant when he said, "All is mind." Emptiness (Shunyata) refers both to reality prior to conceptual formations and interdependent origination. However, how can two things that lack inherent existences have fixed relationships? Awareness is not always directed at anything, just like nothing has a rigid "obligation" or "God given rights". Things are as they are, and this means all conceptual thoughts and ideology are just provisional teachings in the flux of reality that is indiscernible from very, very base level mindfulness in which subject/object duality do not persist. This is the answer to qualia. Finally, note, due to the indeterminate nature of reality, you will have a hard time INTENTIONALLY separating or isolating this primordial non-abiding awareness from your own higher level cognition that is transient and not external from you. The non-abiding awareness can be experienced and not really talked about. All things, however, have this mindfulness and reflect it back to one another, otherwise, they would simply stagnant and not move according to patterns. Finally, Silent Illumination or Shikantaza help with the recognition of it, but it is not easy to maintain this Samadhi.