memes of most religions are not compatible with science, but some
kinds of spiritual practice are. Zen practice and science have much in
common and each may benefit from the other. They may even lead to some
of the same insights about self, mind and consciousness.
What is this yearning that so many of us have for
something else; something beyond, something finer than the messiness
of striving for the ultimately pointless gains of our ordinary life?
It is this yearning, whatever it is, that drives us towards religion
The path to religion is dangerous, full of traps,
and frequently at odds with science. All kinds of infectious memes
thrive in religions, in spite of being false, such as the idea of a
creator god, virgin births, the subservience of women,
transubstantiation, and many more. In the major religions, they are
backed up by admonitions to have faith not doubt, and by untestable
but ferocious rewards and punishments (Dawkins 1993). They can
alleviate the spiritual yearning by providing false hopes and beliefs
– that God created us and will care for us, that the “something
beyond” will be found after death, and that there is a point to all
our striving. Yet as far as science is concerned, we were created by
the blind and inevitable process of evolution, the death of the
physical body is the end of personal existence, and we live in a
If one avoids the traps of religion and the
yearning stays alive, what then? To me the yearning is a massive swirl
of questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What is the point of it all?
What is this stuff I seem to see all around me? What is consciousness
and how can it possibly arise from a physical brain? How can I go on?
I have found two ways to seek answers and, oddly
enough, they seem to converge.
The first is the practice of Zen. I was initially
attracted to Zen because it has very little religious trapping. The
whole point of it (although in the end, of course, there is no point)
is to wake up and see through the illusion to how things are. For that
purpose it does not matter whether you read scriptures, partake in
rituals, or study doctrines, although these things can sometimes help.
The prerequisites are great doubt and great determination (Batchelor
1990, Crook 1991). The main practices are sitting meditation –
calming the mind and looking steadfastly into how things are; and
mindfulness – paying attention in the present moment. The doubt and
determination can see you through hours, or days, or weeks of the
physical pain, fear, boredom, or frustration of just sitting and
looking. Sometimes koans are used, and these ask the very questions I
began with; “Who am I?” “What is this?” (Batchelor 2001), or
“There is no time, what is memory?” (Blackmore 2002a).
Many people seem to see the same things when they
look in this way. Self cannot be found and nothing is substantial or
permanent. What seems at first to be a stream of experiences,
happening one after the other to a self inside my head, falls apart.
Nothing matters and everything must go. The yearning for comfort, for
ultimate meaning, or for life after death cannot survive this steady
The second is the practice of science. This
requires the same doubt and determination, although it is trained in a
completely different way. Unlike the memeplexes of religion, the
memeplex of science includes methods for systematically doubting and
testing its own claims (Blackmore 1999). Unlike most religions, yet
like Zen practice, it encourages open-minded search for the truth
about how things are, and a willingness to change one’s mind in the
face of the evidence.
My own scientific work has led me to try to
answer the same questions as my practice, and the answers have been
surprisingly similar. What is the self? When you look inside a brain
you do not find someone sitting in there, pulling the strings and
watching the show in the Cartesian theatre (Dennett 1991). Yet in
every moment of life there seems to be a ‘me’ experiencing things.
So the brain must be constructing some kind of illusion, but how and
why should we have evolved that way? Perhaps it is memetic, not
genetic, evolution that is responsible; the memes competing to survive
within my own head have constructed this false self for their own
protection. The selfplex seems to be someone who has consciousness and
exercises free will, but this is illusory (Blackmore 1999).
And what about the world that I seem to see out
there? Research on change blindness, inattentional blindness, and the
timing of awareness all suggests that the visual world is a grand
illusion (NoŽ 2002). There really is no picture in the head, even
though psychology and cognitive science have long assumed there must
be. What then do I see? According to the sensorimotor theory of
vision, seeing is not building a picture of the world but is a kind of
doing; a mastery of the relationships between what this body does and
the way the world responds (O’Regan and NoŽ 2001).
The familiar “hard problem” for science is
how physical brains can give rise to subjective experience (Chalmers
1996), and there are other, related, mysteries. If there is a stream
of conscious experiences then we have to explain why some things are
‘in’ the stream while most of the brain’s processing is
‘outside’ of it. Since all neurons function much alike, how can
some of them have the magic property of giving rise to consciousness,
while most do not? Research on the neural correlates of consciousness
had made good progress (Metzinger 2000), but it still confronts this
problem, as do most current theories of consciousness. This problem is
so difficult that I wonder whether the whole enterprise is based on a
fundamental mistake. Perhaps there is no stream of consciousness
Well is there? I must look. And it is here that
the scientific and spiritual paths may help each other. If we are to
explain the nature of subjective experience in terms of objective
brains, then we must see clearly what that subjective experience is
like, and this is not obvious. Indeed the more you look the less
obvious it becomes. It may help to bring the Zen practice of looking
into the science. But perhaps the reverse is true too, and the
scientific ideas can help with the looking. For example, if I try hard
can I see vision as ‘doing’ as in the sensorimotor theory? Yes,
but it is terribly strange. Things seem to appear and disintegrate
back into nothingness with alarming rapidity. Can I see directly that
there is no stream of consciousness? Yes, but it is very peculiar.
William James likened the task of introspection to “trying to turn
up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." (James,
1890, i, 244). This reminds me of the odd fact that whenever I ask
“Am I conscious now?” the answer is always “yes”. But what
about the rest of the time? With practice at looking back into the
darkness, it is possible to lose the sense that there is always one me
experiencing one stream.
In this, and other ways, the two disciplines of
science and spiritual practice can each help the other. And will they
lead to the same place? Are their insights the same? I don’t know.
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Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. Berkeley, CA. Parallax Press
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