Toward the First Revolution in Mind Sciences P5

Daniel Vinograd



I’m suggesting here the empirical observation of mental phenomena – not just the behavioral and neural correlates, the phenomena themselves. Picking up the challenge of William James may dispel the illusions of knowledge of modern physicalism regarding mental phenomena. Physicalism assumes, it insists emphatically, there is nothing in the universe apart from physical phenomena and their emergent properties. Who said? Why should the whole of reality fit into a human conceptual construct? After all, we are the ones who define physical. Nature didn’t define it for us.


The very notion of the physical has shifted from the time of Descartes through Galileo, through Newton, through Maxwell, through Max Planck, through Einstein, through Stephen Hawking. It’s a moving target. Everything is reducible to physics? Great. Which physics? The physics of yesterday or today or 100 years from now? Where does the moving target stop? At what point can you physicists say, “Okay, we’ve got it under wraps now. We know what the physical are, and mental phenomena have to fit into that box”?


The day you’ve stated that, you’ve just stopped doing physics, and you’ve become a medieval scholastic. We now know what is physical, and nature happily fit into our conceptual construct. The whole of nature fit into our box, and we call it physical. That’s not scientific; that’s dogmatic. So perhaps the empirical observation of mental phenomena may dispel this illusion of knowledge, not from medieval scholasticism but from modern scholasticism.


Happily, our Euro-American, Australian, and now our modern – because it’s in Singapore, it’s in Bangkok, it’s in Argentina, it’s in Brazil; it’s not just the West now – it’s the vision of modernity. Happily, we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, our Euro-American civilization. Happily, there have actually been other civilizations on this planet that have had statistically the same scattering of geniuses as our Euro-American civilization. But they weren’t us. They weren’t in the Mediterranean basin. They didn’t come out of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They didn’t come out of the Greek heritage, Plato and Aristotle.


Other civilizations, like that of China for 5,000 years, India for who knows how many thousands of years. Might they have come up with anything that we haven’t? It’s one of those questions you don’t often ask, at least not in academic. I’ve been there. It’s not one of the questions that comes up. Which is assuming that we trump everybody. But India, classical India, they – unlike Galileo, unlike the founders of our scientific revolution – they were not seeking a God’s-eye view of objective reality. They were not assuming an absolute demarcation, a bifurcation between subject and object, and trying to observe the purely objective world from an absolutely outside perspective, God’s own perspective.


That just wasn’t on the agenda for the Indians. For these classical Indian truth-seekers, they were seeking to understand the world of experience, not some objective world independent of experience. In science, we call it loka. If that’s your agenda, to understand the world of experience, not a God’s-eye view of something that transcends experience – in German philosophy, by the way, it’s called lebenswelt, from the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Heidegger – if what you’re primarily wishing to understand is the world of experience, then the study of the mind has to be first and foremost central to your inquiry into the natural world, because the world of experience doesn’t even exist without consciousness. There is no world of experience without somebody experiencing it.


So for the Indians, the study of the mind was the first thing they tackled. In modern science, it was kind of like the last thing they studied. Consciousness itself didn’t even come up in psychology for almost 100 years. Only in the last 10 or 15 years has consciousness become a legitimate object of inquiry for cognitive neuroscientists, for psychologists. When I studied cognitive psychology at Stanford, consciousness was not there. It wasn’t even in the index. And introspection was mentioned only in the preface, when they said “We tried it; didn’t work,” and they moved right on.


The Indians, happily, are not part of our Mediterranean basin box. They had their own areas, and this is one of them. The Sanskrit term is samadhi, and I’m proposing here that it’s a type of telescope of the mind. These revolutionary truth-seekers – and they were revolutionary, because they were kicking away from an old, tired, dusty religious system called the Brahmanic tradition, heavily institutionalized, ritualistic, dogmatic, close-minded. They said “enough.” These shramanas, or these truth-seekers, roughly maybe 3,000 years ago, they set out to understand the world of experience with a primary emphasis on mind.


The first thing they discovered is, if you’re going to try to observe mental phenomena, your observation of it has to be introspective, but your attention is wobbling all over the place. It was ADHD 3,000 years ago. You’re either getting dopey and falling asleep at the wheel, or your mind’s scattered all over the place. How can you make rigorous observation of the mental phenomena if your attention is wobbling all over the place, oscillating between dullness and agitation?


The first thing they did – and they were very good at it by the time that Buddha came along 2,500 years ago – is they developed extraordinarily effective techniques for refining and focusing attention. Rather like a telescope, firmly mounted on a tripod, polished lenses, large aperture, so you can make stable, vivid observations, now not of stars, because they weren’t that interested, but they were fascinated to study the mind. They developed a telescope of the mind, the like of which we have never developed. Modern science since William James has not made any progress at all.


That was the groundwork laid, like the Dutch lens makers who started off before Galileo. There was this historical individual, Buddha Gautama, and I would say he was to India what Galileo was for the West. He took a preexisting technology, but it was a contemplative technology of refining attention, and he applied it in unprecedented ways. Instead of simply going into a state of samadhi, experiencing bliss and equanimity and euphoria and so forth, he stabilized the mind and then he used it to explore states of consciousness, ordinary states, extraordinary states – but rigorous, careful, empirical observation of mental states of consciousness, and made extraordinary discoveries.


At least, that is the claim. Not for us to take as religion – that would be boring – but to take his hypotheses, “They said they discovered this,” just like any good scientist. You hear somebody over there in Beijing made a discovery in their lab; good, can we replicate it? That’s the first thing that comes up. Somebody in Korea said they’ve cloned a dog, they’ve done this or this; good, let’s replicate it. Whoops, that was a phony. So write them off, get back to work. But this is what scientists are doing all the time. Somebody makes a claim? Replicate it.

This is exactly what the Buddha encouraged. He said, these are my discoveries; but don’t just take my word for it. See if you can replicate it. And here is the experimental procedure. Here’s the overall framework: first of all, cultivate a way of life, your whole way of behaving in the world, that is conducive to social flourishing, so that here at Google, you can all get along together happily, harmoniously. You know how that happens; it’s called ethics. No ethics, you’re going to be all ripping each other’s hair out. Without ethics, no harmony. With ethics, you’ve got a chance.


But also, our relationship with the environment at large; with Mountain View, with the state of California, the planet Earth, there’s a way that we can live in harmony with our natural environment, without sucking it dry and leaving the husks to our children. It’s called ethics. Environmental ethics. So that was the foundation.


Upon the basis of that, developing mental balance, refining the mind, refining attention. Developing exceptional levels of mental health and wellbeing. With that basis, then becoming a true contemplative scientist, and using a refined attention to explore states of consciousness, giving rise to a sense of spiritual flourishing, or some would call liberation.


I’m suggesting something dramatic, something revolutionary here. You’ll notice I said nothing original at all. It was William James, it was Wilhelm Wundt, it was Buddha suggesting this is the way to go to understand the nature of the mind. Don’t be satisfied by just studying the physical correlates. You’re always going to get that which is around consciousness, but not the nature of consciousness. Should we be skeptical of that?


The answer is yes, said Richard Feynman, the great Nobel laureate in physics. He said “One of the ways of stopping science would be only to do experiments in the region where you know the law.” Play it safe. If you want to understand consciousness, stick to the brain. You’ll get tenure. You’ll publish in peer reviewed journals. Go introspection route, and oh, you are on thin ice. But he said “Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong.”


There’s a theory: the mind is just the brain. The mind is just an epiphenomenon of the brain. The mind, mental phenomena, are physical. Maybe it’s true. But the good skeptic – not the one that’s skeptical of other people’s views; the person who’s skeptical of his own assumptions – says let’s put that one to the test. He says, “In other words, we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”


Science is known for skepticism; religion is known for dogmatism. But what did the Buddha say here, this great Galileo of India? In response to a bunch of skeptics, he said you are skeptical about what you should be skeptical about. He said “Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Do not be led by authority of religious texts or by mere logic and inference, nor by considering appearances” – just taking a casual look, taking all appearances at face value – “nor by delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea ‘this is my teacher,’” what he said must be right. “But when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome, destructive, and detrimental, then reject them. And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.” In other words, be a skeptic. He encouraged his own followers to be skeptical.


Occam’s Razor was used to great effect coming out of the medieval era into the Renaissance. As Occam said, the principle is, “It is vain to do with more assumptions what can be done with fewer assumptions.” What I’m suggesting here is we have too many assumptions in the scientific study of the mind. Let us use Occam’s Razor to shave off the assumption that mental phenomena are physical. It’s just an assumption. Cristof Koch pointed out, they don’t look physical. Why should they be?


If we shave off that assumption, what have we lost? What less do we know? I would suggest, nothing. We still know the neural correlates; we know just about as much about the brain and behavior as we did before. We’ve just shaved off an assumption that’s never been corroborated. Throw that one out, and now apply a fresh method of inquiry, of introspection, to actually observe mental phenomena. And what might we gain? The answer is, we don’t know until we try it.


As we draw this to a close, we come back to William James, who suggested, in terms of this interface, science, religion, and empiricism, he said: “Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion, and I believe that a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin. I fully believe that such an empiricism is a more natural ally than dialectics ever were, or can be, of the religious life.” In other words, introduce empiricism into religion as much as science, throw out dogma on both sides of the fence, and let’s see what the fireworks display.

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Dr. Daniel Vinograd, DDS |
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