Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Ethereal Mind

Science continues to push at its frontiers: out to the remotest galaxies, back to the origins of the universe, down into the most ephemeral fragments of subatomic particles. The genetic code underlying life is read and decoded. Even the profoundest mystery, the nature of the mind, seems to be emerging into visibility. Ever more powerful dynamic probes reveal the detailed behaviors of the brain. At a much more fundamental level, experiments with quantum mechanical systems continue to clarify the role of measurement, how observation of a system inevitably interferes with its evolution.

There is a tantalizing puzzle here. The nature of mind is at the heart of Buddhism. Buddhism uses introspection to investigate this nature, rather than fMRI machines or photomultiplier sensors. Curiously, the general structure of the Buddhist investigation is to attempt to grasp the mind through ever subtler means and to discover the futility of every such attempt. But perhaps that futility was simply a matter of inadequate technology. Now, finally, are we becoming able to reveal in stark contrast what has remained in the shadows for millennia?

It is a bit of an odd question to contemplate. Certainly methods such as fMRI reveal many intriguing regularities in neural behavior, and correlations between these and various cognitive behaviors. What sort of phenomenal pattern might justify our exclamation, "Ah, there it is, the mind!?"

Our experience of our own mind is intimate in unsurpassable degree. Looking at others, it's quite a mystery. People seem to be an unravellable tangle of sparkling insight and blind automatism. Indeed, reflecting on one's own behavior, it is often embarrassingly easy to find instances that trigger one to ask, "What was I thinking?"

At the end of the 19th Century, physicists were homing in on their goal of discovering the nature of the ether, the medium that carries electromagnetic waves such as light. Einstein's breakthrough realization, the Theory of Special Relativity, revealed that the ether was an illusion, that light is not the sort of thing that is carried by any sort of medium. One could say that light is its own medium: the changing electric and magnetic fields of one moment generate the fields of the next moment. The ether was to provide a frame of reference in which the behavior of electric and magnetic fields had a logical structure. In its place, the Theory of Special Relativity outlines the relationships among an infinite family of frames of reference, in every one of which electric and magnetic fields have the same logical structure.

I would like to propose that the scientific discovery of the nature of mind might well turn out to be surprisingly compatible with the teachings of Buddhism. The mind is what perceives and what acts, much as the ether carried electric and magnetic fields. Just as the ether provided a fixed frame of reference from which to understand electromagnetism, the mind is the locus of our confrontation with the world. Just as the realization of the non-existence of any privileged frame of reference paved the way for understanding how to work with multiple frames of reference, so might the realization of the nature of mind open us to vaster perspectives. The locus of confrontation between mind and world is not anything fixed but a frame of reference from which appears a history of experience.

Does our perceptual and active confrontation with the world actually seem to have any such sort of shiftable character?

Quantum measurement provides a first exhibit. Between some quantum phenomenon such as a photon and the ultimate act of observation, there is a whole chain of intermediary physical systems, such as a photomultiplier tube, an impulse counter, an eye, a brain; we are free in our analysis of the system to stop anywhere along this chain, treating as the quantum system as much of the world as we choose, and the remainder as the classical observer. The shiftable character of mind is very clear in this case.

Consider the puzzle of global warming as another very different exhibit. Allow me to stipulate that indeed the continued combustion of fossil fuel at the present scale will lead to ecological catastrophe and thence human catastrophe. What is to be done? The frustrating and intriguing nature of this question is that it depends on just who is the doer under discussion. As the human race, our options are straightforward enough: we must dramatically reduce our net emission of greenhouse gasses. Of course, how such coherent action might emerge out of the tangled mass of planetary humanity… that is a daunting puzzle! But the puzzle is not much less daunting however one shifts the boundary between observer/agent and world. What should the United States of America do as a nation? What should the United State Federal Government do? What should the State Department do? What should the American Association for the Advancement of Science do? What should I as an individual do? Perhaps I need most to steer somehow the thinking of the American public on this issue, and that might require me to increase my consumption of fossil fuels, flying about to various meetings etc.

A similar sort of shiftiness is apparent in the puzzle of diet, as outlined by Gary Taubes in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories. Clearly the simple energetic relationship must hold within rather strict bounds, between dietary consumption of calories, expenditure of calories in physical activity, and storage of excess calories in fat. The difficulties arise in examining consumption and activity. A famished person will stop at little to find and consume food, and if frustrated will succumb to lethargy. To what extent is any individual's behavior a function of clear perception and free choice, and to what extent are we driven by the physiological imperatives of blood sugar, insulin, etc.

There is not merely philosophical value to a clearer understanding of the division of experience into an observer/agent and a world, of how that division is itself not a feature of the world but logically prior to the world, of how our choices of how to make that division give rise to our options for exploring and guiding the unfolding of our experience. For example, in macroeconomics there are many institutions that participate in the economy as they try to understand and guide it. Are their regular patterns of institutional intervention part of the system which those interventions are intended to steer?


  1. A simpler analogy... in the Ptolemaic system, the universe had a center and everything in the universe had its place in relation to that center. In the modern perspective, the universe has no fixed center. Locations of things can be specified or measured relative to some arbitrary coordinate system. The coordinate system has a center and things are located relative to that center. But one is free to situate that coordinate system as one pleases. The practicality of a coordinate system is relative to the problem at hand.

    So the mind is like the center, relative to which the experience takes form. Mind is not an object of experience, not an object in the world, but a framework through which a world of objects appears.

  2. I think this is a fascinating start on the subject. However, I think you could zero in a little more on the relationship between ether and mind. It wasn't entirely clear in the article that Buddhist philosophy concludes that even mind doesn't truly exist, just as it was concluded that ether doesn't exist in the theory of Relativity. Your supplemental comment clarifies this somewhat. But then another fascinating question comes up: what is awareness? If light doesn't need ether to propagate, could we say that awareness doesn't need a "mind" in order to, well, be aware?

    Finally, if what we call mind is just a framework through which experience appears, what does that say about the validity of our observations?

  3. Thanks, David.

    On the validity of observations, that is always relative to some frame of reference, some way of dividing the universe up into the system under study and the agent/observer who studies. When observations from one frame of reference get combined with those from another, all sorts of fallacies and paradoxes appear.

    Thanks for making the punch line of the whole thing more explicit. It gets a bit subtle though. Yeah, ether doesn't exist, but really it was just an absolute frame of reference, a frame of reference that somehow was out there in the world, something findable, graspable. While there is no such ether, nor any such universal frame of reference, still we use frames of reference all the time. Similarly, it's not that mind doesn't exist at all, but it is not something we can find in the world. It is a tool that we use to perceive a world.

    All of these terms like mind and awareness are rather slippery. To get precise about them involves setting up some kind of framework of conventions. What is both great and frustrating about Buddhism is that it recognizes that multiple such frameworks are viable, useful, but there is no way to situate them all in some grand all-encompassing frame. All I am doing here is sketching out one curious frame that I hope has some value. Can this framework grow to encompass more concepts like awareness or even, who knows, klesha and karma and ... ah, from a tiny seed, hard to tell what might grow, an oak or a dandelion!

  4. Another common feature of minds and coordinate systems is an infinitely receding quality.

    A fundamental problem with coordinate systems is that the only formal way to specify a coordinate system is in relation to some other pre-existing coordinate system.

    The mind is similar. If we identify some mental machinery through which perception, action, etc. take place... how is it that we become aware of the perceptual events that take place via that machinery, how do we steer the production of activity? There must be some inner mind within whatever mental machinery we might posit.

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