The Nature of Consciousness

If anyone is interested in consciousness, this conversation between Sam Harris and this Buddhist Analytical Philosopher is incredibly interesting and really informative. It really makes you think about what this experiencing aggregate really is, this knowing. It is almost more than just knowing. It’s a knowing that allows you to merge with the other aggregates. You can know someone else’s happiness but it doesn’t make you happy. But when you know you’re own aggregate of pleasurable feeling, that knowing merges with the feeling, and so you consciously “feel” pleasure. Interesting stuff. I highly recommend listening to this.

PS: The first part has nothing to do with consciousness, but is still interesting and worth listening to, at least I think so.

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Lots of interesting bits here. Consciousness gets treated like royalty while its subjects Nama and Rupa get second rate treatment! I think consciousness should have the same level of regard as nama and rupa, but we delight (nandi) in the concept of consciousness and think it is wonderful (sukka not dukkha), not realising we are projecting our delusion (avijja) on to this concept. For example, why shouldn’t consciousness be an emergent property of matter (…and mind)- only because we treat it as something far more special than the other two. For millennia people considered only themselves as intelligent, before discovering animals are too to a degree (leaving aside ridiculous questions like whether they feel pain or not) and that it is essentially a survival mechanism. If we equate the value to consciousness to say that of a rock, we might get more perspective (ie leaving the self out of it), and be happy that the neural correlates in the brain are able to explain it satisfactorily.

with metta

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Haven’t seen the video in the OP, but an interesting thing is that the explanation for consciousness in the suttas is downright pithy compared with the laborious analysis done in some quarters, like a few branches of philosophy.

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Well I suppose it could be, although in the suttas it says they depend on each other to exist, so an emergent property only has it kinda one sided.

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Quite right. The Object and the Subject are co-dependant. I was just commenting on the astonishment that Consciousness could emerge out of lowly matter. EBTs regularly say that even now, consciousness arises at the sense doors afresh, each time a sense door gives rise to stimuli, and passes away.

For example:
Eye+visual object gives rise to Eye-consciousness. This in turn gives rise to contact. Contact gives rise to feelings, labelling and mental fabrications. This can be seen experientially and seen not to need a Self at all to work. It is simply cause and effect creation and dissolution of experiences.

With metta

I like to think of namarupa and consciousness as two sheaves of reeds supporting each other as Sariputta describes it in SN 12.67:

“Well then, friend, I will make up a simile for you, for some intelligent people here understand the meaning of a statement by means of a simile. Just as two sheaves of reeds might stand leaning against each other, so too, with name-and-form as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form comes to be. With name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases come to be; with the six sense bases as condition, contact…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

“If, friend, one were to remove one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall, and if one were to remove the other sheaf, the first would fall. So too, with the cessation of name-and-form comes cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness comes cessation of name-and-form. With the cessation of name-and-form comes cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact…. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”

When I think of “eye consciousness” and other aggregate consciousness, I see them as evolutionary functions of the brain, those initial neuropathways that are essential for function and survival. The sense organs detect the outside world and send signals to the brain, the processing center. It’s from there that the conditioning process of namarupa is built and conditioned. Once namarupa is developed, it is bolstered by consciousness or a sense of a stable, inherent self (consciousness). These two hold each other up, giving the illusion of fixity of one or both.

I like neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s model of how signals from the eye sense organ make their way through basic brain processes. I think this model can make sense of the first link of “eye consciousness” as a basic natural, essential function of the brain. I apologize for the low quality of the video; I couldn’t find the original:

But how can you square consciousness being an emergent property of a material brain and re-birth, especially re-birth into an immaterial realm?

“Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The intention & aspiration of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future”. AN3.77

It takes not only consciousness but also kamma and craving as background causes for the ‘seed’ of consciousness to take root in a mind and a body/brain. See also this:

"If, after descending into the womb, consciousness were to depart, would name-and-form be produced for this world? No lord.’ DN15

In the case of an arupa world only mind would suffice, having no physical body.

In Buddhism there is no marked division between physical and mental phenomena. They are interdependent, one giving rise to the other. Neither one has its own inherent existence (sabhava). Also remember that in Buddhism consciousness arises and passes away. This allows it to be fleeting and flexible in how and where it arises and fades away.

With metta

Thank you, Mat, for responding. Yes - I agree. My point was that I don’t think the reductionist view of consciousness being created from wholly material processes in the brain (and nothing else) really makes sense from a Buddhist perspective. Although I don’t think this means that people who subscribe to such a view can’t have partial insights into how the brain and consciousness coexist/function.

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I listened to the whole interview twice and found all of it quite engaging and fascinating.

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I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ve listened to all of his podcast episodes, and Sam Harris is certainly one of my favorite intellectuals. The one problem I have with him is that he’s all for the secular Buddhism movement, but honestly I think that’s only because he’s so intelligent and informed that every way things like rebirth have been explained to him he could easily dismiss them in his mind. I’m sure if he talked to the right people he might be a little more open. Either way, lots of good material, I suggest scanning through the list of his Waking Up podcast and listening to any other topics you’re interested in. He actually talked to Joseph Goldstein 2-3 times, and each conversation was great.

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There are aspects of secular Buddhism that make a lot of sense to me yet aspects of it that my dhamma sense knows is wrong view. You mentioned karma and rebirth. I found it interesting when he talked about the two view extremes of Westerners rejecting karma and rebirth and Buddhist monks view of rejecting that view. I used to dismiss rebirth but I have really opened up to it and am still sifting through my biases and fears, plumbing the depths of what rebirth might mean to me. That said, I find many arguments for and against rebirth to be weak and not particularly compelling. The debate between Stephen Batchelor and Ajahn Brahmali didn’t sway me either way but I think I detected clinging of views by both of them.

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I’m not sure that absolute dismissal of rebirth is a sign of great intelligence or knowledge - probably rather a sign of very strongly (perhaps arrogantly) holding onto dogmatic materialist views. I used to like listening to/reading Sam Harris, but I was turned off by his crusade against Islam - I’ll concede that he is a smart person (above average IQ?), well-educated (PhD in Neuroscience), and seems to have a special place in his heart (on second thought, brain) for “Buddhist” meditation.

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To be clear, his crusade isn’t against Islam, but “bad beliefs” or beliefs that lead to suffering. It just so happens that Islam has some of those bad beliefs irrevocably integrated throughout it. For example, if you were to follow it based on the texts in the same way we do here, you would find yourself forced to agree with causing needless suffering just because someone doesn’t believe what you do and acts on those beliefs. Homosexuality, women’s rights, free speech against Islam, etc. Many of these things result in death or extreme punishment following a strict adherence to the text. To truly combat this, those passages would have to be removed from the “holy” and “divine” text. Something that very few Muslims would ever be willing to do, regardless of how liberal they are, or of whether they think those rules shouldn’t be followed. That is his argument, which he often expounds, but unless you listen to its entirety, it does seem to come off as just a crusade against Islam. The point is, it is certainly not baseless in any sense of the word.

Also, he doesn’t necessarily dismiss rebirth, he only argues that the probability that it isn’t true, given the knowledge we have now, is more than it being true. This may be misguided, but I don’t think speaks to his intelligence or knowledge in any way. I wasn’t saying that it shows his intelligence, or that he’s not intelligent, just that his intelligence and calculative nature is probably the root of it. I’m not sure how explains agreeing with the Buddha on everything else and why someone as advanced as the Buddha would say what he has on rebirth, but I would like to know. I think he certainly has an far above average IQ, and I wouldn’t even say he’s a materialist, he just has no evidence of rebirth and so he doesn’t believe it. He does talk about Buddhism often and far more than just meditation, he is all about the 3 marks of existence, as well as dependent origination, just in the sense of rebirths within one single lifetime. I almost wish he would experience something to move him from secular Buddhism, I think he would be a great Buddhist!

Thanks for the response. I don’t personally care so much about engaging in debates about what the Quran or Hadith say and how to interpret that - I am not a muslim, nor am I flirting with Islam or a likely convert. But I do know Muslim individuals who are good and decent human beings, and I know that many of them are singled out and targeted based on their religion (by birth in most cases). I could be wrong, but my gut tells me that there are better ways to combat religious extremism/terrorism than by bashing the religion itself, or its adherents. Particularly with regards to western critics of Islam, what sound at first like reasoned arguments about religious doctrine can, IMO, mask racial and cultural prejudices, as well as empower and inspire those who are prone to carry out racially/religiously/culturally motivated acts of hate.

Nonetheless, I’m sure SH would make a great Buddhist. :grinning:

Anyway, I think this is a digression from the main topic. Sorry for that!

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