Brain Science Buddha


Reading Edelman’s book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, I was once again struck by a thought I had many years ago, that the Zen Buddhists are much better epistemologists than the academic nosepickers that I had been studying for years. First of all, they are down-to-earth, and have no investment in building grand systems. They laugh at that. Then, they are very attentive to actual, lived human experience, as opposed to the textbook examples that pose all problems in terms of the introspective, highly-educated philosopher pondering the mystery of his own intelligence. They recognize the power of the reason, language, culture, and its limitations. They don’t ignore their intuition that something else lurks behind all this intellectual chatter, but they don’t accept it uncritically either.

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of Zen ideas or Edelman’s here, but one remark is cogent: He suggests that consciousness has no causal consequences – it does nothing! It can affect nothing. Sounds like a retreat into Cartesian dualism, but although he’s rather fuzzy on these points, I don’t think it is. He is a nouveau epiphenomenalist. What does consciousness do? It informs us of our brain-states, which brings understanding. Here we have a great similarity to the zen attitude: just sit, meditate, and observe your mind jumping about. It does nothing. Means nothing, just produces chatter. Meanwhile, the being moves on. Our consciousness is like a rider holding on to a bucking bronco, but thinking he is controlling it. Much wiser to just pay attention to the beast, and take care.

Edelman also deals with the question of free will, but his treatment of it is so brief and cursory, it’s a bit of a shock. I must assume that he simply finds the question boring. And in truth, I think it has nothing at all to do with consciousness. The question of free will is entwined with our notions of causality and determinancy, which are logically prior to anything human.


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