On Consciousness

I just wanted to share a thought about science, consciousness, and “secular” Buddhism. I’ve noticed a line of reasoning that goes something like this:

  1. neuroscience has proven that the brain is the source of consciousness
  2. therefore, we need to rethink everything we thought we knew about Buddhism
  3. in particular, we need to either toss aside or completely rethink kamma and rebirth
  4. the only kind of Buddhism that meets these priorities is some kind of secular Buddhism that chunks out all of the religiousy mumbo jumbo in old fashioned (read “Asian”) Buddhism

I find each step of this thinking problematic.

1.) First, while there is tremendous evidence that our mind is substantially conditioned by our brain, it is definitely NOT the beginning and ending of consciousness. For example, we are embodied creatures. Our consciousness is deeply embedded in our physical being beyond the brain. We are further embedded in an environment. Our consciousness is literally unthinkable outside the physical environment. We are also embedded in a culture. We are profoundly cultural beings. A huge percentage of what we think that we think is actually culture.This is only the beginning. Even if there was a computer that literally mapped every single neuron of our brain, it wouldn’t come within a country mile of being a human consciousness.

Besides, science has NOT even come all that close to offering a naturalistic explanation of consciousness. That project is in progress, and will likely continue to make great strides. It may even complete the job. But we haven’t done it, and I doubt it will happen in my lifetime. I keep thinking of the physicists in the 1890s going on about how they were within a few years of mopping up the last few remaining mysteries in physics before moving on to other things.

If the study of consciousness proceeds like most deep scientific problems, this spurt of progress will solve 95% of the problems. Only at that point will we realize that the final 5% is a vastly bigger problem than the previous 95%. But even if this turns out not to be the case…

2.) There seems to be some disconnect that because science is bit by bit demonstrating that our consciousness is a conditioned phenomena, that means there is something wrong with Buddhism. Where does this idea come from? The Buddha quite clearly taught that consciousness is conditioned. This was a core part of his teaching. Only Nibbana is unconditioned!

The mind is conditioned by the body, by the senses, by past actions, and so on. This is uncontroversial either to common sense or to Buddhist teaching.

3.) Yes, we may need to rethink kamma and rebirth if there was scientific evidence that we needed to do so. But exceedingly little work has been done in this area. Who is offering such funding? Which scientists want to take it on? Do we even have the techniques or tools to measure what would need to be measured to draw conclusions?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is evidence: we have to my mind conclusive evidence that the notion of a rinpoche — an enlightened being choosing to take rebirth to benefit other in the Tibetan tradition — is superstitious nonsense. There have simply been way too many verified rinpoches that turned out to be anything but enlightened beings. It is long past time for Buddhists to renounce this ridiculous practice. We must always be willing to rethink tradition in the face of evidence. But that doesn’t mean that we toss aside core understandings because we suspect that they might someday be disproven. Remember, for much of the twentieth century, the idea of timeless world systems without a discoverable beginning looked foolish in the face of the Big Bang.


4.) I think having many flavors of Buddhism strengthens the tradition. There are secular Buddhists who thoughtfully and deeply engage with the Buddha’s teachings. Saddhu, saddhu, saddhu. But there are other flavors that engage at least as deeply and convincingly. Indeed, secular Buddhism has a lot to prove about its viability in the long term. It doesn’t do itself any favors by dismissing the other flavors out of hand.


10 thoughts on “On Consciousness

  1. My consciousness still exist without my body and my brain. The scientists are wrong as many things cannot be measured only experienced.

      1. yes! if you are interested you can read a bit more about this in my latest post about the space before consciousness

  2. there was an experiment done that showed that the subject was consciously making the decision to do something and was already doing it BEFORE there was any brain activity. There was a space before the brain kicked in

    1. I think the experiment you’re thinking of is the famous Libet Experiment, but the result is actually the opposite. In his experiment, the decision to move a finger is made by the brain a full 300ms before we become aware of the decision. It is actually a pretty powerful blow to the idea of free will and disembodied consciousness, not the other way around.

      1. You can be conscious and aware but you can also be conscious but unaware … awareness is different from consciousness..

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