Reaching Bedrock: Buddhism and Cognitive-Science


by Dan Arnold

In the fraught and often vacuous discourse on religion vis-à-vis science, cognitive-scientific research has recently come to have especially high profile significance. In academic religious studies, such research has perhaps most often been enlisted to support reductionist accounts of human religiousness, with books like Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained typically purporting to show that characteristically religious commitments are really just the epiphenomenal byproducts of our neuro-cognitive evolution; humans are apt to believe in God, on this kind of story, simply insofar as it has been evolutionarily advantageous to attribute unexplained phenomena to the intentional agency of sentient beings. After all, the evolutionary cost of being wrong in thinking that rustling bushes signal predators is lower than the cost of failure to detect real threats. Perhaps just as often, religious enthusiasts have embraced cognitive-scientific research as validating their claims, and popular news weeklies annually trot out stories on “neurotheology” and “the God gene” and other such trends at the frontiers of religion and science.

What’s more, Buddhist thought and tradition have surely occupied a special place in the often breathless representation of exciting new trends in the cognitive science of religion, for who has not seen stories about fMRI scans of Buddhist meditators, or heard about the Dalai Lama’s involvement in some international symposium or another on neuroscience? Buddhism, one often hears, is not a “religion,” whatever it means to say as much, but rather a venerable tradition of “mind science,” and there is considerable excitement in some circles about what richly elaborated Buddhist traditions of self-cultivation might have to teach such fledgling discipline as “neurophenomenology.”

To the extent that the Buddhist tradition’s broadly reductionist account of persons is prima facie compatible with the fashionable anti-essentialism of contemporary philosophy (surely the cardinal Buddhist doctrine that we are “without selves” (anātma) accords with the contemporary conviction that we have rightly been disabused of the idea that humans are individuated by ethereal “souls”), the intuition that Buddhist thinkers anticipated some eminently modern conclusions is not altogether without basis. But there are a number of important reasons to be suspicious of the often facile representation of Buddhist thought as validated by cognitive-scientific research.

For starters, there are important and complex ideological questions of epistemic authority in play: just whose agenda, one should ask, is being advanced by any particular deployment of the “mind science” idiom? Which of these idioms (Buddhist or cognitive-scientific) is presumed to be authoritative, and why should either one of these traditions of thought be thought to require or benefit from the validation or prestige of the other?

It’s important, in this regard, to appreciate something of the history behind the peculiarly high-profile relations that various Buddhist traditions have to science. This history dates at least to the late nineteenth century, when Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, reacting against Christian missionaries, and encouraged by sympathetic Westerners from organizations like the Theosophical Society, developed what most modern scholars now call “Protestant Buddhism”. That is, Buddhist movements that sought, among other things, to detach the “pure” or “original” Buddhist doctrine, and chiefly, the supposedly empirically verifiable “no-self” doctrine,  from the forms of life and practice that an English-educated Buddhist of the late nineteenth century might find it difficult to defend against Christian missionaries.

In this way, Buddhists like Anagarika Dharmapala, an emissary to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, advanced the idea that it is Buddhism, and not Christianity, that is most compatible with the deliverances of science. Awareness of this history recommends at least that we be alert to questions of power, authority and prestige as among the issues centrally at stake in the Buddhism-and-science discourse.

Moreover, matters remain complex even if we set aside such considerations and attend simply to the rarified level of philosophical doctrine. In my new book Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind, I point out that the first-millennium Indian Buddhist thinkers who were most influential in the history of Indian philosophy (their works are still taken as normative by Tibetan Buddhist scholastics today) were emphatically not physicalists.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Now, for many if not most of the contemporary philosophers whose work is informed by cognitive-scientific research, it’s taken for granted that everything about the mental must finally be explicable in terms of brain-events. However, notwithstanding their reductionist account of persons, most Indian Buddhists were deeply committed to the idea that the continuum of mental events is uninterrupted by death. Its continuity, indeed, is just what Buddhists meant by “rebirth.” To argue, as Buddhists do, that our experience is better explained by an event-based ontology than by a substance-based one is not by itself to say anything about whether there could be essentially different kinds of events. Indian Buddhist philosophers could (and did) coherently maintain both that “persons” consist simply in causally continuous series of events, and that the series of mental events, insofar as it continues after the death of the body, has indefinite temporal extension (until or unless, of course, one becomes a Buddha by achieving the cessation of this continuum).

But I also argue in that there are compelling arguments against the kind of physicalism that is currently regnant in philosophy of mind, and that the most interesting of these arguments cut against some Buddhist thinkers too, even though the latter were themselves critics of physicalism. There are then, some deep issues here in virtue of which some Buddhist and cognitive-scientific philosophers face the same philosophical problems, even despite their significant divergence over the question of physicalism. The arguments I elaborate in this regard take their bearings from what philosophers commonly refer to as “intentionality”, in a philosophically technical sense of that word.

The “intentionality” of the mental names the fact that mental events can mean or represent or be about other things: it has indeed been proposed as a hallmark of mental states, of states like believing or having an idea, that they thus have “content.” Whatever we might say about the relations of, say, a brick to its surrounding environment, we would not say it is about anything. Only mental (and significantly, linguistic) things can thus “take” parts of their environment as their content, as what they are about. As the late nineteenth century philosopher Franz Brentano said in influentially introducing this idea:

in presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on.

Now, the idea of intentionality figures in a lot of very different philosophical projects, being coin-of-the-realm in everything from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl to the physicalism of Daniel Dennett; but whatever the story one tells of this, it turns out there’s a lot involved in characterizing the contentfulness of mental events. What turns out to be so tricky is that there’s good reason to think that mental states like, paradigmatically, believing have meaningful content only insofar as we experience states of affairs as some way or another. A moment of experience cannot, that is, really be said to be “about” anything if it consists only in awareness of a welter of uninterpreted sensations, in an unsynthesized “manifold” (as Kant would say); rather, a perceptual experience of  a bunch of tree-like vertical objects is only meaningfully “about” anything insofar as they are experienced as trees. We typically make our way through the world, then, by recognizing states of affairs, actively taking them to be more or less familiar kinds of things.

Thus to experience any state of affairs as being some way or another is to experience it under some description – which is to say that it’s to bring that state of affairs under some concept(s).  And the conceptual description under which you experience a stand of maple trees is not itself among the things that are caused by the photo-stimulation of your retinal nerves by light reflecting off those trees; the fact of your taking those as trees – or perhaps as maples, or as a forest, or as potential firewood, or as attractive landscaping, or as affording good cover or whatever – is not among the things caused by the trees impinging upon your sense faculties. Rather, the innumerable descriptions under which you might attend to some trees represent ways you might take them; and how you take them then becomes relatable to all manner of other complex states of affairs, such that you might reasonably have thoughts like:  “Since these don’t afford good cover, I’d better keep looking for a place to hide,” or “Since these are dead trees, they might make good fuel for a fire.”

We have, then, moved from sensory impingements into the “logical space of reasons” (as the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars was wont to say). The realm of meaningful claims such as we might share with others and invoke to justify our actions. But here’s the thing: those who would explain everything about the mental in terms of brain-events generally have it in mind (if we can say as much!) that it is causal explanations that we are looking for; the whole appeal of brain-events is that these have scientific identity criteria (they occur at particular moments in particular brains), and that we can therefore understand the events in our central nervous systems as making us do stuff. (Platonic entities like “concepts,” in contrast, can’t really explain – where that means cause – anything at all, and therefore can’t really be real; they must therefore be explained in terms of things, like neuro-electrical states, that are real.)

So, one of the big (and, I think, intractable) questions for physicalists in philosophy of mind is this: can we explain thinking or reasoning as ultimately consisting in causal sequences of brain-events? (This, by the way, is one of the main reasons why the computer model has been so important in contemporary philosophy of mind; in the workings of computers, it would seem we have causally describable machines that produce “calculations,” or meaningful chains of argument. Note, though, that it only makes sense to think of the outputs of a computer as meaningful with reference to a user who takes them that way; a computer by itself doesn’t know or care that the electro-magnetic zeroes and ones passing through its circuits are “about” anything.)

Kant identified a compelling reason to think that reasoning cannot, in fact, be explained in causal terms. Suppose you claim the following:

Thinking wholly consists in causal sequences of neuro-electrical states; the fact that those states mean or represent other states of affairs is ultimately beside the point, and needn’t be taken into account in finally describing how these causal sequences work.

(Something like that is the view of those philosophers who dismiss our common sense view of our mental lives as a dispensable theory – as a “folk psychology” that will go the way of theoretical posits like ether and phlogiston once we have reached a complete understanding of the brain.) Kant’s rejoinder will be:

How are we to understand your wanting to persuade me of the truth of  this claim?

We can so much as make sense of the physicalist’s proposal only insofar as we can understand the reasons that can be adduced in its favor (only insofar as we can argue for its truth or falsity); but then the proposed explanation of reasoning is itself intelligible only with reference to reasoning!

Anything at all, then, that we could propose as explaining the intentionality of the mental – anything proposed as explaining what mental states like believing “really” consist in – will always already be the content of our belief; there’s nothing it could look like to see the intentionality of mind from the “other side” (as it were), no way we can get around it and explain it as really consisting in something else. What it is to understand something, in other words, is just not the kind of thing of which it could make sense to say that it’s really something else. This recommends the conclusion that intentionality is a basic and ineliminable fact about us – that our first-person experience of thinking is therefore not at all like a “theory,” not something it’s possible for us to explain away.

Now despite the fact that Buddhists (as I’ve said) were emphatically not physicalists, the same line of argument cuts against some Buddhists, too. This is because some Buddhists – and I’m here thinking especially of a fellow named Dharmakīrti, who wrote in the seventh century and who not only decisively influenced the history of Indian philosophy but is particularly esteemed by many Tibetan Buddhists to this day – held that causal efficacy is the criterion of “being real,” and that things lacking this capacity (concepts, beliefs, claims) must therefore admit of explanation in terms of things having it. (To this extent, Dharmakīrti would disagree with contemporary physicalists only in thinking that strictly mental events are possessed of causal efficacy.)

It’s not hard to see why a Buddhist might think such a thing. Buddhists, recall, are virtually defined as such by their upholding the “without-self” view; and the reason we cannot be characterized as really existing “selves” is that any moment of experience turns out, upon analysis, to be dependent upon innumerable impersonal factors, none of which is what we “really” are – all that’s really real is the causal sequences of these factors. One of the most influential traditions of Indian Buddhist thinkers, then, took their chief philosophical task, in view of their commitment to the “without-self” doctrine, to be that of explaining what there really is instead of the selves we habitually think we are. (It’s important to stress that that’s not the only position Buddhist philosophers took. Another Buddhist school of thought, associated with a much-discussed fellow named Nāgārjuna, argued that the foregoing approach doesn’t make sense – that to think we might arrive at a final list of “what there really is” just is to abandon the Buddhist tradition’s main insight, which is that everything is dependently originated; any time you think you’ve reached bedrock, it’ll turn out not to hold up under analysis.)

Among other things, this all means that when first-millennium Indian philosophers debated the status of linguistic universals – debated, that is, the question whether things like “concepts” are really real – there was an important sense in which they were arguing about philosophy of mind. And the point I’m getting at is that if the classical Indian framing of these debates was in some ways unfamiliar (the first-millennium debates typically took their bearings, e.g., from traditional analyses of the Sanskrit language), it’s nevertheless clear that classical Indian Buddhists and their contemporaneous critics were arguing about a lot of things that are still very far from settled; notwithstanding recent (and undeniably dramatic and exciting) advances in the understanding of the gorgeously complex human brain and central nervous system, positions analogous to pretty much all of those staked out in the classical Indian debates are still defended in contemporary philosophical discussion. It’s still really hard to understand, among other things, how embodied human minds can be about the world – how, in particular, we can take things to be thus-and-so, where so taking them seems compellingly to resist the scientific (read: causal) explanations that seem to be all we know how to offer.

Perhaps, then, the main reason to be suspicious of enthusiastic claims about the cognitive-scientific verifiability of Buddhist claims (and about “neurotheology,” “neurophenomenology,” and all the rest) is that is that it’s not altogether clear just what kinds of questions cognitive-scientific research can answer, and certainly not clear that the questions to which certain Buddhist (and other religious) claims were the answer are (or even can be) answered by empirical research. While the endlessly imaginative and fascinating research done in the cognitive sciences may very well indeed tell us all kinds of interesting and valuable things about the enabling conditions of mind (about, that is, some of the necessary conditions of being “minded”), there remain essentially metaphysical questions that not only are not but cannot be answered by such empirical research – questions such as what kind of thing mind (subjectivity, consciousness, understanding…) is.

No scientific explanation of mind can itself be an instance of mind; but what, in that case, is the latter? Such questions are sufficiently far from settled that overweening confidence in the explanatory significance of cognitive-scientific research is altogether unwarranted; indeed, a closer look at some of the Buddhist thinkers whom some cognitive-scientific researchers like to engage – and at the more generally philosophical questions that come into view upon doing so – suggests that when it comes to “mind,” we still do not even know what it is we are talking about.

About the Author:

Dan Arnold is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research chiefly concerns Indian Buddhist philosophy, which he engages in a constructive and comparative way. His first book, Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (Columbia, 2005), won an American Academy of Religion award for Excellence in the Study of Religion. He is the author of Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind.