Are the early suttas against the view that mind is an emergent property from the body?

Maybe, maybe not :slight_smile: :upside_down_face:
I agree with many of your points, and I suppose I was just pushing the boundaries of how far into ‘structure, cause and effect’ one wants to go. I’m not at all invested in any theories. :slight_smile: And feel there is no need to have congruence between them.

For me there is no objective, independent reality, it is completely relative.

This isn’t really adding to your discussion though, so apologies for the tangent :slight_smile:


I agree with this statement. When I’m in the lab the scientific method can certainly help me to model the world so as to find a solution to a problem, but it can never address the subjective aspect of experience. Suffering, happiness and so forth can’t be fully addressed by a scientific method as they are subjective states. I don’t think there is any way to measure awakening or Jhana aside from brain scans, which wouldn’t really tell us much about the actual experience itself. Science can never tell us what something is like.

Personally I’ve never understood why some Buddhists need to have Buddhism proved by science and its shifting sands of theories. I suspect its due to a lack of saddha and a suspicion of being duped by religion. If you agree with the Buddha and see something in what he taught all you need is faith and practice until you first glimpse nibbana for yourself.

Going back to the mind/body problem it seems to me the suttas support the idea of mind existing without a physical body, as per the formless realms. Within the human realms mind and body are linked, with both mutually conditioning the other. So, if the Dhamma is dualist or idealist depends on if you accept rebirth and other realms or not and which realm you are talking about. For the human realm at least it seems to be a strictly dualist affair.

I’m excluding all forms of materialism/physicalism since that isn’t supported by the suttas.

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Right. And the number 1, iron-clad way to ensure that you never understand or transcend that system is to deny that you have it. Ahh, it brings back memories of the old days, when certain Ajahns would warn us of the dangers of being attached to views! Of course, they didn’t have any views … or did they?

Yes, exactly!

I didn’t realize this. It’s amazing how personal interests can drive a project with such far-reaching consequences.

I should have said, replication crisis:

It’s rather too complex to discuss in a little comment here, but I personally believe the implications of this crisis—which is only one of a long string of question-marks—are devastating to the claim that scientific method has been of any use whatsoever in fields such as psychology.

To say that it is “related” is trivial, and not a scientific matter: everything is related to everything else. However, according to Psychology Today:

The idea that the amygdala is the home of fear in the brain is just that—an idea. It is not a scientific finding but instead a conclusion based on an interpretation of a finding.

Again, “involved” is really vague. According to a recent paper:

existing data are generally not sufficient for distinguishing brain activity related to memory (and hypothesized memory-related variables) from activity related to viewing behavior

My point is not to contest these specifics. But if we want to point to something unambiguously true about modern psychological findings, we need to find something a lot more specific and rigorous. Once you start digging down, you find that the specifics of whole research areas are less than solid. Neurological research is largely based on fMRI, which measures the magnetic resonance of brain regions as a proxy for blood, as a proxy for brain activity, as a proxy for mental activity. It is woefully inadequate to measure anything about complex mental processes.

Here’s the thing. I’m not saying that we haven’t learned anything from such studies. I’m saying that I see zero evidence that focussing on fMRI studies—or any other field of “scientific” psychology—actually teaches you anything more about the human mind compared to, say, sitting in a park and observing people, or reading a Russian novel, or talking with friends, or meditating. You might learn different kinds of things, to be sure, but they are not necessarily more important or interesting things.

And given that that is the case, there is no basis for saying that scientific method has any special value in understanding the mind. On the contrary, I would argue that our perception of the success of scientific method is based on the physical sciences, and we assumed that applying the same method to the mind would be comparably stunning advances. A hundred years ago that was a reasonable hypothesis, but today, I would read the entire history of “scientific” psychology as a rebuttal.

Perhaps. But then, why is there effectively no progress at all in treating mental illness in society at large? Sure, in individual cases we have medicines or therapies that can work. But can we say with any confidence that the mental health of the general population would be worse if we had never developed a field of “psychology”, but had instead, say, built our cities with compassionate, community-focussed architecture? Or if we had recognized that the causes of psychological distress are frequently found in social injustice, and had put all that effort into fixing inequality, racism, and other forms of systematic injustice?

I’m sorry to say, but I know lots of Buddhist psychologists and psychiatrists, and almost all of them live in wealthy white suburbs where they take care of the mental health of wealthy white people. Is it ethical to focus research on speculative, expensive technologies by and for the rich, when actual solutions to human psychological distress are simple and effective: water, food, safety, housing, community, justice, a sense of meaning and belonging.

It’s about opportunity cost. Pouring trillions of dollars into research and focussing millions of bright minds on a field of study is not value-neutral or inevitable. It is a choice, one that is based on the hypothesis that this is an effective way of prioritizing human time and resources.

To be clear, I’m not just critiquing psychology here. I believe that the same can be said for pretty much any of the soft sciences. I think that the real reason they exist because of the prestige that physics and chemistry gained from their stunning, unprecedented successes, in the hope that comparable success would follow the application of similar methods in other domains. And it just hasn’t happened.

Not at all. It’s just an inference from reading texts. I’m a textual scholar. Part of my job is to read things and draw conclusions from them. So far as I am aware, nobody in 2500 years of Buddhism ever read the suttas and concluded that they were compatible with a materialist viewpoint of any kind. It’s a non-issue as far as textuality is concerned.

Well, the whole “nibbana” and “self” thing, the “mind like fire unbound” and so on. But his absolutist tendencies come out in more mundane matters, for example, see his debate with Ven Bodhi on just war, or his persistent attempts to deny the existence of bhikkhunis based on tendentious legalisms.

It’s a term from the suttas, see eg. SN 12.33.

It’s a complex question, and I’m not familiar with the pramana school in detail, although my understanding is that much of the philosophical debates around knowledge hinged on working out the exact implications of this very question.

But it seems to me the basic situation is quite straightforward. What can I see with direct perception? This. Can I see that this is impermanent? That is an understanding that requires knowledge of the past and future states of this. It therefore requires memory and projection, and is inherently inferential.

Now, one could make an argument against this case (if time is not momentary, perhaps we see a fuzzy smear of present in which things are impermanent).

But what if we were to extend the example: Can I see that all conditions are impermanent? There’s no possible way short of strong omniscience that one can see “all” conditions, hence it must be inferred.


His views on Nibbana and self are concerning but I don’t think there is any leeway for a Buddhist to support any type of warfare. Ven. Bodhi is quite wrong to suggest otherwise. Could you expand on what you mean here by “absolutist tendencies” Bhante? It’s not all that clear. Aren’t there some things in the Dhamma that are absolute?

To be clear, I’m not just critiquing psychology here. I believe that the same can be said for pretty much any of the soft sciences. I think that the real reason they exist because of the prestige that physics and chemistry gained from their stunning, unprecedented successes, in the hope that comparable success would follow the application of similar methods in other domains. And it just hasn’t happened.

I’m inclined to what you have said here and elsewhere Bhante. I do struggle to see how the “soft sciences” are sciences at all and indeed when we get to the likes of the social sciences such as sociology it seems to be more ideology than science. I guess it has to do with mathematics and certainty. We have at the top mathematics as a discipline with certainty and no room for interpretation, and so by extension no room for ideology. As we move down the sciences to physics we see less certainty and a bit more room for interpretation. This essentially goes on until you move downwards and even further away from mathematical certainty in the soft sciences, which are then naturally more open to interpretations and biases.

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Only a Sith deals in absolutes. :darth_vader:

I haven’t read the conversation recently, but my memory was that both venerables missed what for me is the key point: there is black and white kamma with black and white result. Performing an act of violence to protect the innocent would be a case in point. It’s neither purely good nor purely bad, and cannot be wholly assessed by a binary judgment as “justified” or “unjustified”. There are limits in our knowledge of morality, and the Buddha was not shy to admit them.

The idea that war may be “just” is, IMHO, a western concept that has its roots in the warlike religions of the ancient past. I have argued that the concept of a “just war” is not a genuine moral principle, but a hidden means to justify war.

Right, although I wouldn’t phrase it as being “more open to biases”, as it seems to me that often those in “soft” sciences are more aware of their own biases. Long ago, I can’t find it now, I saw a study that showed that rigourous testing methods like double-blinds were used far more commonly in so-called “psuedosciences” (telepathy and the like) than in hard sciences.

To me it’s more a question of epistemology. There’s no compelling theoretical reason why scientific method should work: it just does. I think we’ve become numb to just how unprecedented are the western advances in physics and chemistry through recent centuries. It has cast a spell on the human mind.


Only a Sith deals in absolutes. :darth_vader:

Which is itself an absolute statement :smile:

I haven’t read the conversation recently, but my memory was that both venerables missed what for me is the key point: there is black and white kamma with black and white result. Performing an act of violence to protect the innocent would be a case in point. It’s neither purely good nor purely bad, and cannot be wholly assessed by a binary judgment as “justified” or “unjustified”. There are limits in our knowledge of morality, and the Buddha was not shy to admit them.

The idea that war may be “just” is, IMHO, a western concept that has its roots in the warlike religions of the ancient past. I have argued that the concept of a “just war” is not a genuine moral principle, but a hidden means to justify war.

Thanks for clarifying. I have heard this argument before. Personally I view such acts of killing as always having unwholesome roots. I struggle to see a sutta or Abhidhamma allowance for any kind of “just” killing. The Buddha did say that all soldiers go to an unpleasant place when they die. By that it seems all people who go to war are engaging in negative kamma. I can’t see the Buddha looking on approvingly at those who kill for any reason much less go to war. However, I’m getting off topic.

Nothing more for me to add at the moment.

I am not sure if it is true to say that “the suttas don’t posit any onthology”. I do think it is true, however, that they do not present us with a metaphysics, in the sense of a speculative philosophy. If the suttas do have an ontological position, it would be one based on experience.

It seems to me that doctrinal statements such as “all phenomena are impermanent” (sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā) and “all principles are nonself” (sabbe dhammā anattā) are ontological in nature. In fact, the Buddhist academic Peter Harvey seems to argue that dependent origination is a Buddhist ontology.

My question to Bhante @Sujato was rhetorical.

The Buddha’s doctrine is a guide to spiritual development - a strategy, if you like - but this only works if it is based on a deeper truth. In other words, you cannot guide people to true insight into the nature of the mind, at least not at its deepest level, unless this guidance is based on the way the mind actually functions and manifests.

What we need to be cautious with, however, is to over-determine how such insights are supposed to appear to the individual. We should focus on general principles, as the Buddha does, not on the specific contents of each moment of insight. The more specifically you describe the nature of insight, the more likely it is that an individual meditator will “manufacture” a similar experience, which is then misinterpreted as the described state. I have seen this a number of times, with people who thought or were told, based on very specific experiences, that they had reached certain stages of awakening, only to realise later on that they had reached no such thing.

Of course, you can misinterpret your experiences regardless, but it seems more rampant when you are given a map which is extremely detailed and specific.

It’s endogenous. The Buddha claimed to speak only from personal experience.

Sure. Yet it may also be true that there is no self. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In other words, we would see the deeper truth in slightly different ways. This is precisely why it is often counterproductive to determine too precisely the nature of insight.


But the Buddha states that the rupa aggregate breaks up at death, and the only passages which give us an inkling of what gets reborn use language which points to it being non-physical.

He addresses all of this in his books, he points to an empirically verifiable phenomenon for an answer, the phenomenon of Dissociated Identity Disorder.

It’s different because the physicalist explanation (and the idealist), are positing basic existents, which then have certain behaviors and follows certain rules, that we then describe using maths and information theory. But it definitely seems intuitively different to say that the ontological foundation of reality is information itself, for information always seems to require something else (i.e. a mind, or a motherboard) to contain it. Indeed, information depends on interpretation, conceptualization and abstraction (paññati?), which is a feature of the mental.

Perhaps Carvaka held something similar. See the studies of Ramkrishna Bhattacharya on this school (Bhattacharya 2009 and 2020) for an extensive overview. Ancient Indian thought was filled with metaphysical speculations. The various Brahmanical theories one finds in the Upanishads have all reality as emanating from Brahman, or some other substratum. So I would answer that yes, early Buddhists would have been aware of these ontological theories. Basically, there is nothing new under the sun today. Most of the big metaphysical ideas that exist today had some counterpart in ancient India.

I cannot agree. In fact, I don’t think that the separation of ontology and phenomenology really holds for any Buddhist system. It seems to me that these sharp divisions between different philosophical fields (epistemology, ontology, metaphysics) are an invention of the Western mind. The idea that one should interpret a Buddhist system of thought only from one of these perspectives (i.e. to say for example, Yogacara is just phenomenological), and that it does not have relevance for the other fields, is just not born out by my reading of these texts and how philosophy was done in India (where philosophical fields were much more messy and unified).

I know that this is a popular interpretation in the academy (especially since Dan Lusthaus popularized it), however, it is not the opinion of all those who study Yogacara. For example, Jonathan Gold’s recent study of Vasubandhu. I am not going to throw out a bunch of academic literature here (but see Jay Garfield and Paul Williams on this), but I will say there is a lot of pushback against the idea that one can say Yogacara is just a phenomenology without metaphysical implications.

Thank you! This is of course, closely related to what I was saying above about Yogacara, but equally applies to the EBTs. There are those who take the same kind of pragmatic or phenomenological approach to the suttas (using a specific reading of SN 35.23, Sabba Sutta for example), and then say that the Buddha did not have ontological positions, its just a phenomenological psychology, or better yet, Kantianism! I think Sue Hamilton has one such interpretation.

However, as K.N. Jayatilleke argued in his Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, the Buddha’s epistemology is not purely pragmatic (though it contains elements of pragmatism) and is not agnostic about ontology. Citing the Apannaka sutta, Jayatilleke argues that the early Buddhists considered something as false if it was “a denial of fact or what does not accord with fact.” Therefore, truth in Buddhism is both true in the sense that it agrees with facts, and pragmatically useful. Indeed, the two are not separate, but closely related. In this view, something false cannot be useful, and something which “works” pragmatically cannot disagree with the facts about the world.

The reason this matters is that while a pragmatist might not care about ontological issues, since they believe that what is true is what is just what is useful or what works (in the Buddhist context, this would mean it leads to awakening), early Buddhist epistemology does care about facts about the world. For example, if it turns out that ultimate reality does not change, then the doctrine of impermanence is wrong in some and therefore cannot be useful in one’s spiritual practice since it would be forcing us to view the world in a way that does not correspond to the facts. The same applies the karma and rebirth and the ontological presuppositions that necessarily support those views (mainly, that physicalism is not true, i.e. that the mind is more than just a function of the brain).


“Whatsoever” might be a bit on the “baby and bathwater out the window” side.

I’m currently listening to Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, where he discusses the application of the scientific method in psychology. He also acknowledges and discusses the pitfalls in detail.

Kahneman’s research and insights fit very well with the Dhamma as well as with scientific method. Quite astoundingly, Kahneman describes the scientific method that actually measures the intransigent prevalence of views (including those in psychology itself!). Kahneman also describes proven strategies (statistically proven!) to mitigate view bias and improve outcome (i.e. reduce suffering). Interestingly, those very strategies of reducing view bias align quite well with the mitigation of identity view, that “story we tell ourselves”. Kahneman’s insights have helped me reduce my own suffering and given me concrete tools to restrain views.


I conflated my own point with the ontology vs. phenomenology dualism in Western philosophy.

Of course, ancient Buddhists thought about the independent existence of an environment outside of the mind. They were wrestling with the epistemological issue of subjective experience not matching reality. That’s a common theme in Buddhist and Western philosophy. So, there’s plenty of material in Buddhist philosophy that matches up with what we’d call ontology.

I’ll try to clarify what I’m saying with the example of the realms of rebirth vs. the modern concept of the universe.

In Buddhist thinking, the realms of rebirth exist as a direct result of the moral actions of sentient beings or the expiration of those results. That mechanism is just a given as an asserted natural law. The Buddhist “Big Bang” takes place when the devas in the Suddhavasa Heaven begin dying. Their merits expire and the lower realms come into being to house their new, less pure existences. This is a radically different idea than we have in Western thought, which views the universe that contains us as a mechanism that operates in an indifferent manner to our experience of it. So, for us objective existence and subjective experience are two different things. The model we currently have in modern science is essentially Deism without the deity. There’s a creation but not a creator. We still think of ourselves as creations in our perspective, nor as creators. So, we are little parts of that unimaginably large and complex mechanism.

For ancient Buddhists, the realms of rebirth are ostensibly a physical environment but only insofar as there are beings to experience it. It’s created (and destroyed) by their subjective experiences and actions. Yes, there’s the assertion of natural laws like impermanence and karma that drive it as well. That’s not what I’m making my point about. What I mean is that existence and subjective experience are close synonyms to ancient Buddhists, and Asanga continued that line of thought. He went so far as to posit actual seeds housed in each sentient being’s mind that generate this experiential existence.


I suppose I had algorithmic theories of information in mind. These are well-defined theories of information involving Turing machines (abstract computers). Information can be variously measured in terms of the the size of (smallest) Turing machine that can simulate or generate what it is we are measuring or sometimes the amount of processing (or operations or resources) it needs to do that. Usually, resources permitting, these Turing machines can be actually simulated or built in the physical world. In these ideas, there isn’t really much of a distinction between information and the associated abstract computers (Turing machines) and the programs running on them.

I get the point about needing to run on something. Mathematics or information theory can provide a description. A Turing machine is another description. It’s quite possible that someday we may fully know the rules of the physical universe we are living in. Conceptually, we may be able to express all that as a Turing machine. In principle, if we could build a computer with enough resources, we might then simulate a universe. There might be intelligent beings in that simulated universe who could in turn figure out the general rules of operation of their universe and perhaps figure out in principle a Turing machine model capable of simulating a universe like their own. Of course, they would have only this description. They would have no way to figure out how or on what this program is running (or figuring any of the implementational details of the computer they were being simulated on). Similarly, for us, we may ultimately never have anything more than a description of the functionality (whether in terms of mathematics or information theory or whatever).

Or for all we know, we ourselves could be living in a simulation or program. I suppose ultimately there must be some kind of base reality running all this (there are hardly turtles all the way down :slight_smile: ). Maybe that base reality is computational? IMO that’s not that hugely different to saying information is fundamental.

IMO there’s the very same issue with idealism. If one says ideas are fundamental, mustn’t there be necessarily some kind of universal mind or universal mental substrate (universal mind sounds a bit too theistic I guess :slight_smile: ) of some kind to hold those ideas? That sounds even vaguer than saying base reality is computational.

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Does he though? I think there is some acknowledgment of certain limitations within psychology, but it is still far from the reality. I haven’t read his book, so it’s not a comment on his work as such, it’s just that all of the commentary from psychologists that I have seen on such issues—and incidentally I happened across one of Kahneman’s comments when reading up on this—is futzing around the edges.

A bit over a century of electricity, and we have supercomputers in our pockets. In 60 years we went from the Kitty Hawk to the SR-71, and few years later we were on the moon. In 1905 an obscure physicist published On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, and 40 years later Hiroshima and Nagasaki were radioactive hellscapes. For better or for worse, physics works.

In the same time frame we had Freud, Jung, and James. And where has it got us? Mental illness is as bad as ever, if not worse. We put madmen in charge of nuclear weapons. And psychologists are in crisis because they can’t figure how to reliably test even the most banal of theses.

Honestly, no offense, but I don’t accept anything as proven within psychology. And relying on such inflated truth claims is a symptom of the problem.

Psychology is at its best, IMHO, when it is based on human experience and intuition, and doesn’t pretend to be applied physics.


Is it vaguer? It doesn’t seem like it to me IMO. I know what experience is like, I know what it is like to be aware and “exist” as a conscious being (albeit as a highly dependent and contingent one). Now, any ontological theory has to have some ontological primitive, Idealism just takes the most basic fact that we are aware, and extends this to the rest of reality as the basic ontological category.

This doesn’t have to take absolutist or theistic forms as in Vedanta or Berkeley either. We are just talking about reality as a dynamic field of mentation as a useful theory of the world. After all, even Yogacarins, who held that there is no external reality outside of mind, still held that this was just a conventional designation, and that ultimate reality was beyond language and so on. So even though they held that all was mind, it was not an absolute statement.

Indeed, Jonathan Gold in his book on Vasubandhu states that for Vasubandhu vijñapti-mātra is not the ultimate truth - paramārtha-satya, since as the Samdhinirmocana sutra says, the ultimate truth is what is realized by aryas in meditation. Because of this he calls Yogacara “conventionalist idealism” btw.

The Buddha claimed to have direct insight into the workings of kamma, and he said this is potentially accessible to each one of us. As I am sure you know, this is in fact one of the three vijjas, “insights”, that constituted the Buddha’s awakening experience. So this ontology is not based on typical metaphysical speculation, but on experience.

Well, I don’t think this is the full picture. The EBT texts that deal with this, e.g. DN 27, seem to speak of the realms evolving first and then the beings being reborn there:

Vivaṭṭamāne loke yebhuyyena sattā ābhassarakāyā cavitvā itthattaṃ āgacchanti.

As the cosmos expands, sentient beings mostly pass away from that host of radiant deities and come back to this realm.

I am not sure how literally these descriptions should be taken, but I think they point to an interesting philosophical problem. Here are some musings.

One of the basic facts of our existence is that we live in a shared reality. This is so because we can meaningfully communicate about our sensory experiences. There is a strong, although not absolute, commonality in how we experience the world. Our individual ability to shape that shared experience is limited. Or at least that is how it seems in our human realm.

Now the fact that our experiences are shared can in principle be explained in a number of ways. The traditional western explanation is to bring in matter as an underlying reality, that is, the philosophy of physicalism. In this view, because our minds emerge from the same underlying physical properties, we have a shared experience of the world.

But this is not the only way to solve this problem. Another way is to postulate a world mind that we in some sense are part of, much as they do in Advaita Vedanta and historical Brahmanism. In fact all theistic religions could in principle explain our consensus reality in this way.

From a Buddhist point of view, neither of these explanations is satisfactory. We need to consider alternatives. One possibility is that our shared reality emerges from communicating about it. Our sensory perceptions are clearly shaped by our interactions with others, which may explain why we see the world in much the same way. This idea is strengthened if we bring in rebirth, which would mean that our shared reality has been created in this way over enormous spans of time.

It is also possible, I suppose, that mortal equivalents of a world mind might have a stabilising effect on the world. If we assume some sort of mind-to-mind interaction, then it is would not be too difficult to come up with a theory of how this might work. This could perhaps be seen as a watered down version of how a universal creator is responsible for consensus reality.

I want to make it clear, however, that I am not proposing that our reality is in any way fixed. According to the EBTs, e.g. DN 26, the realms of existence are themselves fluctuating. The human lifespan, for instance, is said to vary enormously from epoch to epoch. It is just that this variability manifests over enormous periods of time, and does not affect our shared experience of the world.

Also, I am not saying we do not have any effect on the world around us. I think we do. It is just that our individual influence and contribution is very small.

So far as I can see, all of this needs to be taken into account if we are going decide on the relationship between mind and matter. In the end, we might be better off leaving those leaves on the forest floor. :slightly_smiling_face:


@sujato This answer was both inspiring and saddening.

I’ve just finished reading the articles you’ve linked. I’m not a specialist in the field, so it is always good to learn a little bit more. Do you realize those articles go against your argument? The studies indicate that the amygdala is indeed related to fear (in a way I was able to further understand, thanks :grinning: ). And also the studies show that the hippocampus is related to memory, together with other important areas such as the neocortex.
Indeed, to say they are “related” is vague. But also it is a sign those guys are not jumping to false conclusions from the studies (such as confounding correlation with causation). But also those things are related in very fundamental ways. It is not like the relation between memory and, say, Mars. After the removal of both his hippocampi, Henry Molaison was not able to generate new episodic memories until the end of his life. But… it could be some sort of coincidence? Let’s grant that possibility.

I’ve had a frightening experience with memory loss at the beginning of this year. After getting an injection of the vitamin in a drugstore, I fainted due to the peak of adrenaline. Falling down, my head hit the ground in an area around the right temporal and the frontal lobe. Also, my labyrinth was all messed up, so I would continuously feel that I was falling. I “woke up” some 14 hours later, only to discover that actually I was never “sleeping”. During that time, my family told me, I lost a lot of old memories, and couldn’t form new episodic memories. I answered correctly to questions about my name for example but didn’t know about the death of my grandmother or my dog (who had died many years before that). And also I’d repeat things over and over. Probably I was conscious throughout the whole experience, but all my memory system was messed up so that later my experience (due to lack of recollection) was that I was unconscious the whole time. Fortunately, there was no permanent damage. The loss of memory was correlated but not caused by the trauma in the brain? Let’s grant that possibility here too.

This criticism about methodology is indeed very important! But those articles you linked are not arguing against psychology, social sciences, or medicine. The issue at stake is how to improve scientific study, not invalidate it in general. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemics, I´ve watched some interviews with John Ioannidis, who works exactly arguing that most of the papers in the medical area have major methodological flaws. But he is very much an enthusiast of medicine and wants to improve the studies, not to undermine them. That’s the part of your response that saddened me. It seems like you would go as far as invalidating a whole field of science because it seems to disagree with how EBTs are generally interpreted. IMO that’s not a wise approach.

They teach us quite different things about the mind. But I love that you mentioned russian novels! I’d add Machado de Assis, a brazilian genius writer contemporary to Dostoyevski.

No one will argue against the fact that psychology and neuroscience are very new sciences. But they have had their own fantastic discoveries and innovations like bionic eyes for blind people to see, bionic arms and legs, techniques to cure chronic pain in phantom limbs (Ramachandran has written a delightful book about it), techniques to treat hemispatial neglect, to treat aphasia, etc.

That’s the inspiring part of what you wrote. Indeed, there is a limited amount of benefit that can come from individual treatment. Actually that’s also something I think we should all think about as Buddhists. I don’t know about Australia, but in Brazil, there is among Buddhists a tendency to disregard or bypass social issues and promote individual meditation practice as the one and only path for a healthy society.
I happen to be architect, so I’ve had the chance to be in touch a little bit with the discussions and actions about social justice related to urban planning wen I worked in some slums here.

Here you are pointing to the important fact that isolation and lack of meaning or sense of belonging are major causes of suffering nowadays. And that has to do with our socio-economic system, our history, etc.

If you are criticizing middle-class individualist ethics, we agree on that. But it’s not only people with money who suffer mental illness and can be benefited by the discoveries in the field of psychology. And also good urban planning and just access to resources won’t solve all of the people’s problems.
My mother works as a volunteer in a very interesting institution near a slum in her town, Laço. They treat hundreds of people who could not have access to expensive hospitals or clinics. Part of the treatment is giving them the chance of having a sense of community and not being so marginalized as most mentally ill people are. They have many simple activies together such as gardening, photography workshops, etc., All led and organized by themselves. And also they have access to individual psychological and psychiatric treatment.

That’s exactly the argument I used some years ago when debating this issue! (when I had a position mostly similar to yours). Firstly, I’m not arguing for a materialist interpretation of EBTs, but that EBTs are not necessarily against a view of the emergence of mind out of bodily properties. Those (EBT and emergentism) can be seen as two different frameworks in talking about the mind which are not contradictory with one another (in which case there is no need for us to argue against or even invalidate a whole field of science, as I did many times in the past and it seems like you are also doing).
And the lack of precedence is not an indication that an interpretation of EBTs should go for or against such theory about the mind. There are so many other things in contemporary culture which are new and with which Buddhists are just starting to think about and create dialogues! For example: the theory of evolution. It’s quite different from the myth presented in DN27. And there is no precedent about how was the dialogue with the theory of evolution in the past 2500 years, simply because the knowledge contained in the theory of evolution was not present until just recently.

That’s amazing :open_mouth:! I’ll create a new Q&A topic to ask some things about the translation which are not related to what we are discussing here.

Indeed. The Buddha doesn’t quite say that something or someone is reborn, but he clearly states that birth is conditioned by Kamma and that at the break up of the body, consciousness sustained by craving causes the consciousness of the new birth (like the example of the fire spread by air which we discussed above). Those elements that are being “transmitted” from one life to the next are not physical, but that does not mean they are independent of the physical or have any independent onthological existence (like a wave that exists without water). Much to the contrary, they are indicated in the suttas as dependent of physical conditions. To the point that orthodox Theravada interpretation is that a new life arises immediately after another one ends (which is not necessarily the one and only interpretation of EBTs, to be sure).

PS.: I’ve written “transmitted” because Buddha indicated to Sati that there is nothing being transmitted. It’s not the same consciousness which dies and rearises in a new life.

Disagreed. For the reason, I demonstrated above on the theory of evolution, as one example.

That’s what I suspect also. That all this talk about Buddhism being soteriological and not metaphysical are not endogenous to the EBTs, but a modern superimposition.

I believe Schmitthausen argues in the same direction. But in any case, that’s not an indication that EBTs imply necessarily an idealist metaphysics.

Do karma and rebirth really imply the view that physicalism is not true? Comparative example: does the fact that a wave is transmitted from one side of the pool to the other prove that wave is independent and doesn’t emerge from the interaction of water and wind?

Good point. And all the science about emergence of mind from bodily properties are about human and animal minds. There is no such scientifical analysis of formless or form realms. So that question is quite separate.
There is a post about the base of consciousness in arupadathu in which it is more throughouly discussed. But just to refer to EBTs: I’ve found a single sutta in which the Buddha talks about a wise person wondering that in formless realms beings are made of perception. There is no direct explanation about the issue, and the explanation of arupa samapattis says that although rupa is present, it is not experienced.
And as @sujato has indicated above here (or in the other topic?), consciousness in the formless realm is always dependent on rupa, even if it is only of the rupa of the previous life that caused it.

That’s interesting! But I don’t think EBTs go so far as supporting the idealist view that ends up in solipsism. Although phenomena are always referred to as subjective experiences, they are in the EBTs presented as also indicative of a reality that is outside of the individual subjective experience. It indicates a reality which is shared by many, and which according to Sarvastivada Abhidharma interpretation is the fruit of dominance (adhipatti-phala) of collective actions.

Yes. But that is not to blame psychologists or materialists. The fragmentation of society, lack of values that give purpose to life after the fall of Christianity, the industrial revolution, world wars, nuclear crisis, the capitalist ethics centered on work and production, economic crisis, the rise of nationalism, etc. There are just so many interrelated historical elements leading to where we are! It’s quite simplistic to say for example that climate change is to blame on physicalist philosophy. The most active environmentalist can also hold physicalist views and that wouldn’t affect his beliefs about the preservation of Earth’s ecosystem.

Indeed! But leaving those leaves on the forest would also mean to drop the view against any such interpretation about the relation of mind and matter. If the leave is in the forest, how can you say what it is not?


The critical thing to me is to be aware of the limits of a physicalist philosophy that denies the possibility of rebirth. This is really enough. I don’t think we need to come up with a precise philosophical position that fits the EBTs. We may just end up philosophising without end in sight, while Mara laughs his evil laughter at our expense. It is rather frightening to consider that the reason we are still here may well be that we have indulged too much in such discussions in the past. It really matters where we draw the line.


Kahneman would agree with you about the lack of rigor in psychology studies, in particular, inappropriate sample sizes. Perhaps that’s why he decided to focus on Economics, for which he won the Nobel Prize. Economics uses larger sample sizes. :laughing:

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Hi Luis,

Personally I think there is a theory of evolution of a different kind in the Suttas,

Through the round of countless births and deaths I have wandered without finding
the housebuilder I was seeking: born and suffering once again.
O housebuilder, now you are seen! You will not build the house again:
all your rafters have been broken, and the ridgepole has been destroyed,
my mind has reached the unconditioned, and craving’s end has been achieved

Bhikkhus, I do not see any other order of living beings so diversified as those in the animal realm. Even those beings in the animal realm have been diversified by the mind, yet the mind is even more diverse than those beings in the animal realm

I see it like this. Just like with a river, over millions of years it carves out a hugely complex river valley. There may be many forces involved but mainly one force is responsible, gravity.

Mind is the forerunner, craving which delights now here now there is the creative principle, the builder, the architect. If indeed there is an correlation between brain and experience, that is how it has to be, to have this particular kind of material existence.

But science has said no such thing. Science has told us the physical workings of the brain and how if the brain is influenced within a certain way mind will be experienced in another way, but that doesn’t tell us that the mind emerges from matter. It tells us nothing about the mind at all really. Science can’t answer the problem of consciousness. It’s beyond it’s reach. Science can only tell us about functional consciousness. It can’t tell us anything about phenomenal consciousness.

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Citation required! The body breaks up at death. The five aggregates continue.

My argument was this:

  • you claimed that “There is no big controversy in recognizing for example that the amygdala is related to the experience of fear, or that the hippocampus is involved in the formation of new episodic long term memory”
  • to claim that these things are “related” is true, but too vague to be a scientific claim.
  • if you make a more specific claim, it is more scientific, but it is no longer uncontroversial.

And that is what I was citing by pointing to these papers. This was the result of all of five minutes googling, so don’t expect an authoritative survey of the field! The state of psychologists today might be compared with pre-Gallilean physicists, who understood that there is a relation between weight and gravity, but beyond that, little was agreed or certain.

That sounds very distressing, for you and your family. My mother had a fugue state a few years ago, she lost several hours and came too wandering the streets.

I know. But I am. I think they are too invested in their fields to really grasp the implications of the science.

I am far from the first to have claimed this. In fact, the seeds of my skepticism were perhaps planted when I was a student in the mid-80s. Then, I read a paper—sorry I can’t recall any details, but it was a peer-reviewed paper in a major journal—that surveyed the state of the empirical support for the efficacy of psychological treatments, and concluded that there wasn’t any. This paper was following up a similar survey that had been done in the 60s with similar results. And it pointed out that nobody had meaningfully responded to the methodological and other critiques of the earlier paper, they had just … kept on.

That’s their issue. But it’s not mine. My problem is quite different. I want to understand how it can be that a society so advanced as to produce nuclear weapons, internet, and space travel continues to ravage the environment so much that is no longer able to even promise its children that they will have air to breathe or water to drink. And the best answer that I can see is that our physical sciences have totally outstripped our culture and ethics and emotions. And I fear that continuing to invest in the same ideologies that have led us to this (guestures vaguely around) only guarantees more of the same.

Oh, pick me, I will! They are older than nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, relativity, genetics, and a dozen other fields of physical sciences that have reaped far more substantive results.

Sure, and look, I am as thrilled by these things as the next person. But these are invariably very specific and localized successes. You can’t point to a specific exception as evidence against a general hypothesis.

Indeed! Yet somehow, mental health services are overwhelmingly provided for the wealthy.

That sounds amazing, your mother must be an incredible person! And this is exactly the kind of thing that, in my view, is really effective in dealing with mental health issues. And incidentally, it is not too different from the role that monasteries play in traditional Buddhist cultures. You don’t need fMRI scans or big Pharma to do this, just simple kindness and community.

Blame isn’t the point, it’s about fixing the problem. And there’s nothing that indicates they’ll ever be more successful than they have been in the past, which is to say, not at all.

We keep on thinking that one day, if only we organize the right way, convince people the right way, do the right kind of study, isolate the right research project, that people will get it. But they don’t. And they never will. Why? Because you can’t engineer enlightenment. You can only grow it, slowly and uncertainly, through culture; which is arguably what culture is.

But this is a straw man argument, I never said anything like this.

To reiterate my argument. There is nothing in the history of the scientific study of psychology or other so-called soft sciences that indicates that they will ever have the kind of overwhelming success that the physical sciences have known, and upon which the prestige of the notion of “science” is built. For this reason, I see no reason to conclude that so-called scientific method is any better for learning about the mind than any other method. This being so, there is no reason to think that the soft sciences will ever catch up with the problems that application of the hard sciences has created since industrialization.

The success of soft sciences, such as it is, is easily explained simply by the fact that lots of smart people have worked on these problems for a long time. Imagine that we took a million intelligent people and got them to work on understanding the mind for a hundred years, but gave no methodology or resesearch theory. Surely they would come up with something!

Again, you misread me. I am dismissing a whole field of “science” because it is empirically a failure. It has nothing to do with the EBTs.

Show me that it has been empirically a success in a general sense, and I’ll happily change my views. But by psychology’s own measures, mental illness is on the rise.

The increase in mental health issues is most consistent between the 1930s and the early 1990s. There is little doubt that anxiety and depression increased between these decades.