Buddhism, Pragmatism, psychology



Guess I’ll have to spread the news
That I got no mind to lose
Teenage Lobotomy, Ramones

This body is just a body, like all bodies; reaching out to the world, it generates thoughts; and these accumulate into a consciousness – which others call ‘you,’ to which consciousness responds ‘I.’

Current neurosciences and statistical psychologies have revealed/are revealing new and interesting details concerning brain activity and human behavior; but have they really advanced our understanding of ourselves – as “selves”? I’m not here to argue for some ’embodied soul’ distinct from the materiality of its habitation. On the contrary; I suggest that such a notion was revealed as organically/socially generated fiction many centuries ago; and that this revelation has already resulted in a practice in response to it.

I am discussing a philosophical psychology constructed by Indian and Tibet thinkers who passed it along in the Buddhist traditions: A philosophical psychology that is rigorously materialistic, wherein intentionality and volition is generated by the body with consciousness following after, rather than imposed on the body by the mind – which notion shares aspects with certain Western theories, including Pragmatism (hence the two philosophies I identify with, which I rarely find in conflict – although I won’t say there isn’t any).  Consistent with the Buddhist theory of dependent arising – that every mental phenomena has a bodily function originating it – it was William James who argued that, should we meet a bear in the words, our body begins to flee before we even feel fear.  What if James is right, what if intentionality does not originate in the brain, what if it begins in the body? Doesn’t that generate some interesting issues?

The philosophies of India and Tibet are ancient and we have learned more since, no doubt; the 19th Centuries of America and Europe are not so old, but we’ve still learned more since, no doubt. But some foundations investigated in these philosophies remain viable as modeling structures.

What I find interesting in older philosophies are those ideas with real tenacity. They remind us that the course of human reason is not to find dead-ends in dogma, but to indicate the kinds of questions every generation of new thinkers may ask themselves, not only to learn more, but to incorporate their knowledge into understanding.

Most Buddhists and most Pragmatists are materialists (of one form or another), who assume that the body generates consciousness, an inheritance of our evolutionary history as a particularly complicated animal that has had to rely on its wits and immediate adaptability to survive (rather than, say, big teeth or feathers). In other words we assume the problems of consciousness, ‘self,’ intentionality (in the psychological sense), etc., are problems of relating these phenomena to an animal responding to the world (social and material) in specialized ways that – hopefully – enhance its survival. We don’t start by assuming a consciousness that must somehow find its way into a material world in order to acquire certain knowledge. Consequently, we may be not surprised by the implications of the sciences that explore our materiality.

Speaking solely for myself, personally, I just don’t have the sense of ‘self’ that would be threatened by the recent discoveries in the neurosciences (although I may take issue with certain interpretations of these discoveries). I am completely content to live out life as an empirical person who works, visits friends, pays his taxes –  while maintaining cognitive skepticism concerning any supposed ‘self’ or its presumed intentionality. My interest in consciousness is not ‘what-it-is,’ but how it works. I already assume that what we refer to as ‘the mind’ is a self-referential principle and not anything substantial, and that its epistemic ground is both fragile and contingent, threatened always by external events (say, an electric shock), social events, or internal biochemistry.

And I understand that my use of the words ‘I’ and ‘my’ here bring this sentence under suspicion; but that sort of game amused me when I was still reading Derrida, now it just gets in the way of clear communication. We speak the language we do to communicate with others concerning shared interests. Trying not to do so simply closes down conversation. Wittgenstein’s demolition of the hope for a private language is not simply about logical problems in language construction – its about living with other people.

In the psychology as developed in Buddhism, the “Self” is composed of the 5 aggregates: 1) matter – the body itself; 2) sensation; 3) perception of feeling; 4) conceptualization of feeling; 5) consciousness (organization of the previous 4), leading to what Tibetan theorists refer to as ‘the 6th sense’ – i.e., the sense of ‘self.’ This is the ‘self’ that is illusory – not, as some think, the empirical self that, e.g., the law demands fill out tax-forms every April. (No one would deny the empirical self exists, not even eliminativists, who argue that there is no consciousness – but who, I presume, fill out their tax-forms every April, as Americans usually do.)

There has been a similar tendency of thought among modern philosophers, e.g. some materialist Hegelians (including some Marxists), or American Pragmatists. And there were even some hints of such thoughts among Medieval Nominalists.

The point is one that I have tried to raise in other contexts, concerning the compatibilist/incompatibilist debate.

First, what does it mean to say that such arguments have been around 2500 years? It means, obviously, that philosophy has been ahead of science, but that surely is no surprise. If science can finally prove one ancient philosophical reasoning correct in its understanding, I find that satisfying. But of course this could also mean that science will not be able to make this determination, that the terms of the investigations of neuroscience are rigged by our brains to the extent that neuroscientists can only recycle what has already been ‘known’ (presupposed) theoretically, by the brain trying to examine itself with new instrumentation. In other words, the philosophical inquiry may be destined to continue, simply on other terms.

But it also means, addressing the pragmatic question, what does this scientifically assured modelling of human psychology new reality actually look like? – that perhaps the new knowledge is simply the old knowledge in newer language?

The Buddhist theory of the biologically/sociologically generated sense of self (and its deconstruction into non-self by careful analysis and meditative practice) has been around 2500 years, and millions have lived guided by it. The answer to the question of what the new, scientifically informed reality of self-hood might look like, is plain: it looks like pretty much what the world looks like now.

Again, in wider, more traditionally Western philosophical terms, I consider myself basically a Pragmatist. The bottom line question I must ask as a Pragmatist is, what does this scientific re-definition of human psychology actually get us? Frankly, I suspect not much (at least not in my lifetime). For instance, we who appreciate science know that evolution is a fact, but some 40% of our fellow citizens here in America think otherwise. (And they vote on the basis of that and similar beliefs.) So obviously we don’t live in a world determined solely by more or better knowledge. There are arguments for social usefulness that need to be made that we can’t let lapse.

But there is another distinction needed here: the fundamental difference between what we, collectively, can make of new knowledge, and what the individual can do with it.

Although socially a Pragmatist, I found that I needed something that addressed my personal experience more intimately. Buddhism, which has a more rigorous tradition among ancient philosophers adhering to it, I adopted as a personal philosophy. The kind of innovation we are currently witnessing in the neurosciences and related fields can aid in the development of certain technologies (such as robotics), and of course neuroscience will get us greater knowledge of how the brain functions physically and biologically, which hopefully will prove useful in medicine and certain forms of psychotherapies.

But for individuals, the ultimate pay-off for any philosophy that has deep consideration of the ‘self’ – and its problems – is personal. What can be done with it? Does it increase suffering or reduce it? Does it make ethical choices more insightful ore more trivial? What about relations between people? Or is it just a matter of whether it is easier or harder to pay the taxes on April 15?

I think these are the questions, answers to which we may need to address more explicitly and clearly in the future.

Basic definition of the 5 aggregates: http://buddhismteacher.com/five_aggregates.php

More technical discussion of same: http://www.buddhanet.net/funbud14.htm

See also James Duerlinger’s discussion of Candrakiirti’s denial of the self, http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/duerl1.htm


Additional notices:


From: Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology: a match made in Nirvana?  Collaborations between monks and psychologists yield new directions in psychological research.
By Sadie F. Dingfelder

“Buddhist theories of the mind have also influenced the work of Stephanie Rude, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who is interested in applying these ideas to work with people with mental illnesses such as depression. Rude sees particular merit in an idea borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism: that the self–a belief in something permanent, stable and integral to a person–hinders happiness.
‘When you read Buddhist writings, you get a sense of self as an obstacle in achieving fulfillment,’ explains Rude. That is a huge difference in perspective from the West, where the concept of self-esteem or a ‘healthy’ self is central to both theory and clinical practice, she says. Yet, consistent with the Buddhist view, some Western research suggests that focusing on the self can compound negative emotions, explains Rude.
‘A depressed person may make himself feel worse by interpreting his suffering as meaning he has failed in some way,’ says Rude, explaining that a trained Buddhist monk might choose to see his suffering as an inevitable part of being human.”


From the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, translated by U Jotika and U Dhamminda:

“Here (in this teaching), bhikkhus, a bhikkhu perceives thus:  ‘This is the corporeal body (ripa); this is the cause and the actual appearing of the corporeal body; this is the cause and the actual dissolution of the corporeal body.  This is feeling (vedana); this is the cause and the actual appearing of feeling; this is the cause and the actual dissolution of feeling.  This is perception (sanna); this is the cause and the actual appearing of perception; this is the cause and the actual dissolution of perception.  These are mental formations (sankhara); this is the cause and the actual appearing of mental formations; this is the cause and the actual dissolution of mental formations.  This is consciousness (vinanna); this is the cause and the actual appearing of consciousness; this is the cause and the actual dissolution of consciousness.’

Thus he dwells perceiving again and again dhammas as just dhammas (not mine, not I, not self, but just as phenomena) in himself; or he dwells perceiving again and again dhammas as just dhammas in others; or he dwells perceiving again and again dhammas as just dhammas in both himself and others.  He dwells perceiving again and again the cause and the actual appearing of dhammas; or he dwells perceiving again and again the cause and the actual dissolution of dhammas; or he dwells perceiving again and again both the actual appearing and dissolution of dhammas with their causes.  To summarize, he is firmly mindful of the fact that only dhammas exist (not a soul, a self or I).  That mindfulness is just for gaining insight (vippassana) and mindfulness progressively.  Being detached from craving and wrong views he dwells without clinging to anything in the world.  Thus, bhikkhus, this is the way a bhikkhu dwells perceiving again and again the five aggregates of clinging as just the five aggregates of clinging.”


One thought on “Buddhism, Pragmatism, psychology

  1. So there was this story about the guy going to study Zen in a monastery. He notices this impressive mountain on the way. After studying Zen for a number of years, he looks upon the mountain and no longer sees a mountain. But after graduating from his studies, he looks at the mountain and again sees a mountain.

    I think we need to push on through to find the ‘self’ again. At the moment our language has become a bit confused, because we learn more about the nervous system and brain every day. (I like to include the whole nervous system because it connects us to our gut, our muscle, our touch, our sight, our sound, etc. which are all parts of what makes us ‘us’. We probably think verbally by talking to ourselves through pre-speech and post-sound centers.)

    But a car is still a car. We may find a gas engine, an electrical engine, or some kind of hybrid under the hood. But if someone is accidentally hit by one we don’t say he was injured by 4 wheels, a hybrid engine, two headlights, etc. He was still hit by a ‘car’.

    The ‘self’ does not disappear into determinism. Nor does ‘free will’. When we speak of the perfect reliability of cause and effect we refer to a kind of ‘ever present background’ in which everything happens. Or a ‘characteristic’ or ‘property’ of the rational world we live in.

    The idea of ‘will’ presumes the idea of ‘causing an intentional effect’. Without the idea of a deterministic ‘setting’ there is no point to the idea of ‘will’. Free will requires determinism.

    I love to visit a magic shop. The salesman/magician shows me things that are impossible. And it has a very relaxing and refreshing effect upon my mind. I would guess it would be like the experience of ’emptying’ the mind during meditation.

    And perhaps the idea of riding passively upon the causal train is also refreshing from time to time. That’s fine for entertainment while relaxing. But those suggesting we surgically cut away ‘free will’, then ‘self’, and then ‘moral responsibility’ from human consciousness poses high risks to human well-being.


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