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Archive for 13/09/2011

Buddhism and neuroscience

Seed has an article by David Weisman on whether and how Buddhism overlaps neuroscience. (here)

He says he started as a sceptic about this overlap, but had changed his mind.

Despite my doubts, neurology and neuroscience do not appear to profoundly contradict Buddhist thought. Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning. Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’ One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing. … Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is.

He sees the difference between Buddhism and other religions that cannot find common ground with neuroscience as the idea of human exceptionalism.

Early on, Buddhism grasped the nature of worldly change and divided parts, and then applied it to the human mind. The key step was overcoming egocentrism and recognizing the connection between the world and humans. We are part of the natural world; its processes apply themselves equally to rocks, trees, insects, and humans. Perhaps building on its heritage, early Buddhism simply did not allow room for human exceptionalism. … When Judeo-Christian belief conflicts with science, it nearly always concerns science removing humans from a putative pedestal, a central place in creation. (starting with the earth not being the center of the universe)

But he does point out that there is no overlap on the concept of reincarnation. He cannot see neuroscience ever being comfortable with a consciousness that can survive the death of the brain. And reincarnation is fairly deeply fixed in Buddhist thought. However he does note that the Dalai Lama is believed to be the Dalai Lama because he is the reincarnation of a line of Dalai Lamas - but surprizingly he is planning to choose his successor before he is dead, retire and let the new Dalai Lama take over. That doesn’t sound much like reincarnation to me – surely one who have to be dead before being reincarnated.