Monday, February 27, 2006

mind and reality

I spent the weekend in New York City, attending the mind and reality conference. It was really interesting, in many aspects. Not only was the level of discussion about the nature of consciousness (mainly) really high, but also was it interesting to observe the sociology of knowledge. I was surprised at what a language gap there seemed to be between the (neuro)scientists, who tend to speak the language of data, the philosophers, who communicate through mention of different theories and previous philosophers, and Buddhist scholars, who pepper their conversations with lots of Sanskrit/Pali/Tibetan terms. It was quite obvious that we are in dire need for translators, even though some of the speakers did quite a good job at trying to make some steps in translating themselves, which was one of the more interesting things at the conference. Probably a more focused conference, restricting itself for example to the nature of consciousness and trying to discuss the differences and similarities from neurobiological, philosophical and Buddhist perspectives would be more productive. Nevertheless, it was impressive to have so many great minds together. I especially enjoyed the talks about phenomenology by for example Evan Thompson, trying to link a complex systems approach to neuroscience in order to suggest that there is not a separate mind and body, but rather they are co-emergent. A similar point was made in a very interesting essay by William Waldron. I think this is a very fruitful approach, though hard to turn into science. How can we come up with models that are so complex that they represent this co-emergence phenomenon, the necessary nonlinearity of the system?

The next day of that weekend was quite a turn when I attended a rigpa sangha gathering, which operated from quite a different perspective. Sogyal Rinpoche tends to bring the teachings from the direct experience, or from the heart of things, and only then the intellect comes in, whereas at the mind and reality conference most was done from the approach of the intellect, except for a little bit during the presentation of Piet Hut, who encouraged the listeners to experience the world in different ways, demonstrating the phenomenological approach quite beautifully. Anyway, I think it is fruitful to have both, and I wish that personal experience were used more by neuroscientists. who are after all trying to understand how the brain produces cognition.


The grumpy monk said...

Hey - so you attended a sangha gathering. You know - I live in Lerab Ling.

Thanks for the comment on my post - that was quick. I have been wondering how long the posts take to get published because sometimes my new ones don't appear for quite some time.

Have you ever been to Lerab Ling?

Floris van Vugt said...

Relating to this post I would like to cite a part of Nietzsche's Human, All-Too-Human (1878), for which I will use the delicious translation provided by Walter Kaufmann.

"I have also ignored the holy men of India who occupy an intermediate stage between the Christian holy man and the Greek philosopher, and thus do not represent a pure type: knowledge, science -- insofar as science existed -- raising oneself above other men through the logical discpline and training of thought, were just as much demanded among the Buddhists, as a sign of holiness, as the same qualities were repudiated and pronounced heretical in the Christian world where they were held to be signs of unholiness."

What I find fascinating in this passage is that he places the Buddhist in between the Christian and the (Greek) philosopher. What is your view on this subject, as a practicing Buddhist?

You might also like to comment on his second point that qualities that are desired in a buddhist would be repudiated by a Christian. And what stance would a scientist have towards these qualities?