Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Complementary views of not-self

The intersection of Buddhist conceptualization of mind and current neuroscientific investigation into the inner-workings of mind tends to occur in generalized cross-referential statements of complementarity. The most prominent of these is the shared view of not-self.

In Buddhist philosophy and psychology, not-self is realized primarily through first-person contemplative practice—clear seeing into the illusory nature of internal phenomena that appear to us as a coherent, permanently existing self-narrative, but are actually cittavÄ«thi, a continual stream of impermanent, interdependently co-arising mind-moments of thought, feeling, perception, sensation, and image.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett describes the neuroscientific view of not-self in this way, “When you study perception you realize that you have a limited take [on reality]; you are only taking little sips from the fire hose of information that is coming in [through your senses.] There is no place in the brain where it all comes together [as a self]. That is just an illusion…” September, 2009, interview on The Binding Problem.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux says, “Your ‘self’, the essence of who you are reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in your brain.”

So Buddhist and neuroscientific explorations into the function of mind both land in the complementary view that the experience of a self as entity is objectively and subjectively untrue. Yet, neuroscience is not quite willing to recognize that this false notion of self, the source of primordial ignorance, is the root cause of all human suffering. This points to the main difference I see between science and Buddhist philosophy. Though science informs us about the fundamental nature of manifested reality (how it works and how we can work with it) it has little to offer our species in its need to evolve socially, morally, and emotionally. In the West, this has traditionally fallen under the purview of religion and philosophy, and of course in the last one hundred years, psychology. In truth, Buddhist psychology is the optimal intersection of scientific exploration and contemplative investigation into not only the nature of mind but also the nature of reality—relative and absolute.

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