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The Illusion of Consciousness in Modern Science and Ancient Chan

Abstract for CFI Eleventh World Congress, Beijing, 12 – 15 October 2007

Note - I never gave this lecture. I fell off a horse, broke my hip, and was unable to attend.

Consciousness is said to be the greatest mystery facing science today. It is a mystery like heat in the days of “caloric” theory, like electricity before Faraday, or like evolution before Darwin. That is, we don’t know how to think about it properly or how to investigate it productively. We cannot define it, measure it or even detect it, yet to each of us it seems the most important thing in our lives. How should we tackle such a mystery?

I will briefly outline the state of consciousness studies in Western science today, and give some examples of the problems it faces. I will then argue that we need a more disciplined approach for exploring consciousness from within. The ancient traditions of Chan Buddhism here in China provide just such a disciplined method and may help us in our quest.

What is consciousness? There is no agreed definition but some consensus among scientists and philosophers that by consciousness we mean subjectivity, subjective experience, or “what it’s like” to be something. The central problem for understanding subjective experience is that mind and body seem to be entirely different kinds of thing. That is, subjective experiences seem to be quite different in nature from objective bodies and brains, so we are forced to ask how can one arise from, or be caused by, or even be, the other? This is, of course, the ancient mind-body problem. Dualism is always tempting but dualist theories face insuperable problems and are almost unanimously rejected by scientists and philosophers. A modern version of the problem is termed “the hard problem of consciousness” by David Chalmers; that is, how subjective experience can arise from objective activity in the physical brain. This, too, founders on dualism and it is hard to know how to escape it.

I suggest that the hard problem arises only because we are thinking about consciousness in the wrong way. In other words, consciousness, as most people currently conceive it, is an illusion. If this is right, and we are deluded about the nature of consciousness, then scientific attempts to understand it will necessarily falter. There is no point in trying to explain something if you are wrong about the very nature of the thing you are trying to explain. So what is consciousness actually like?

William James, in the nineteenth century, described consciousness as a stream of ideas, impressions, perceptions and thoughts passing through the mind. In fact his conception of the stream was rather subtle, but the metaphor is often used to imagine that there is a unitary conscious self who experiences a stream of conscious events that happen in the “theatre of the mind”. This idea seems entirely natural, but leads to confusion. Dennett describes such views as entailing a “Cartesian Theatre”, a non-existent place in the brain where everything comes together and consciousness happens. Theorists may reject Cartesian dualism (the idea that mind and body are made of different kinds of stuff) but still hang onto the idea of an inner conscious self who has a stream of experiences. But, he says, neither the show in the theatre nor the audience really exists.

There are other confusing implications of the usual view. For example, one implication is that only some of the things going on in our complex brains get into the special conscious stream (or onto the stage of the mental theatre) while others remain as “unconscious processes”. The conscious ones are then referred to as “the contents of consciousness”. But what could this mean? Does it mean that something magic happens to convert physical processes into special processes that “give rise to” or “create” subjective experiences? Or that subjective experiences “emerge” from some special neural processes but not others. This would focus the hard problem onto those special processes but would do nothing to resolve it.

In spite of Dennett’s protestations, and the real difficulties involved, most researchers still seem to be what he calls “Cartesian materialists”, that is, they claim to be materialists (or monists – believing in only one kind of stuff, not two) but still believe in the Cartesian theatre. Phrases such as “enters consciousness”, “in consciousness”, or “presented to consciousness” are common, and research often implicitly relies on theatre metaphors. For example, one of the most popular theories today is “global workspace theory” which explicitly uses the metaphors of the theatre and audience, even though these are both said to be physical brain processes. And one of the most common research strategies is the search for the “neural correlates of consciousness”. The idea is that if we can discover what is happening inside the brain when a person consciously experiences something (say a particular visual or auditory event) as compared with when the event is presented but not consciously experienced, then we would have found the NCC.

I think this series of metaphors, and the research based on them, is utterly mistaken. A few simple demonstrations can reveal a little of the problem. Take vision, for example. We easily imagine that when we look at a complex scene we are building up a model of the scene in our mind’s eye, but in fact we can think we consciously see something when we did not even have time to look at it, and can miss even large changes when those changes coincide with an eye movement or blink. A simple observation with a chiming clock can raise difficult questions about what it means to say something is “in consciousness” or not.

These are simple examples, but note that they are more subtle than traditional visual illusions which show that we can be wrong about what we are seeing (i.e. an appearance/reality distinction); instead they reveal that we can be wrong about the nature of vision or hearing itself. This raises a very important question for consciousness – can I be wrong about my own consciousness? Some people argue that we cannot be wrong – what I say I am conscious of is the final arbiter of what I am conscious of. I disagree. I think we can be deeply deluded about our own immediate subjective experience.

If this is right then we need to find a way to look much more clearly into the nature of our own consciousness and find out what it is really like. How can we do that? Anyone who has tried will know that it’s very hard. As soon as you try to look everything changes; nothing seems stable. It’s easy to assume that we must know what consciousness is like, but looking always seem to reveal something new and different, and slipping away. Something better is needed.

Meditation traditions from all over the world have developed methods for looking directly into the nature of the mind, but perhaps none is so clear and effective as the methods of Chan Buddhism, and the Japanese equivalent, Zen, which it inspired. Chan practice begins with simple methods for calming the mind, but is also full of such instructions as “Investigate the mind!” or “Look directly behind your own face!” or “Drop off body and mind”. Most relevant here, Chan also claims that we are deluded about our own minds and selves, and advocates looking hard so as to “see the nature” or “to realise non-duality”.

There are both similarities and differences between the science of consciousness and the Chan endeavour. Both advocate great discipline, and have training in specialised methods that can take many years or even decades. Both stress persistent inquiry and great scepticism in the face of simplistic explanations. And both seek insight into the nature of self and the experienced world. On the other hand, Chan and science have entirely different aims. While science aims to understand the mind for the sake of knowledge or control, Chan aims to achieve insight and realise non-duality for the sake of transcending suffering both for oneself and for all sentient beings. So can one really help the other?

I believe so. I have been training in Chan for nearly as long as I have been a scientist. I learned to meditate in the 1970s, went on my first retreat in 1982, and have been practising Chan meditation every day for more than twenty years. When I began this endeavour I did not see it as linked with my scientific work but over the years the two have come closer and closer together, so that now I think they each thrive on the other. In recent years I have tackled a series of questions that directly confront the hard problem of consciousness. My approach has been to use the well-practised methods of Chan first to calm the mind and then to ask a question, much in the way that the Rinzai tradition of Zen uses koans to investigate the mind. I have done this work both in the course of my ordinary practice and in a series of retreats, some of them were organised koan retreats at a retreat centre in the Welsh mountains, and others were solitary retreats either in the mountains or at my own home. I shall discuss a few of these questions in this talk.

The first question is “Am I conscious now?”. I have not only used this question myself but have had many students on my consciousness courses who have tackled it too. Surprisingly it is most informative. The answer always seems to be yes, but asking it seems to change awareness in some way, as though one is waking up or suddenly becoming conscious. This then prompts the question “But was I conscious a moment ago?”, and if not what was it like before I asked the question? This is similar to William James’s attempts to “turn on the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks”.

This leads to a second question “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”. If you think that there has to be a correct answer to this question (i.e. that there is always a correct answer to the question of what a given person is conscious of at any particular time) then this should be easy to answer. Yet it is not. What one finds is many possible threads that could have been “in consciousness” leading to a suspicion that perhaps there are multiple possible answers and not one correct one. This is very odd for any standard theory of consciousness but fits happily with Dennett’s theory of “multiple drafts” or my own slightly different version of “multiple backwards threads”.

I shall briefly discuss a few of the other questions I have tackled, including some that come straight from traditional Chan practice and some of my own invention. On a purely experiential basis the years of work I have done this way have led me to the following conclusions:

There is no persisting self who has conscious experiences, there is no theatre of the mind and no contents of consciousness, and there is no time at which experiences happen. There are experiences all right but they are not at all what they have been assumed to be. If this is right then much of the present day scientific attempts to understand consciousness are doomed because they are searching to understand something that does not exist. Consciousness is not a container with contents and a stream of experiences happening to a conscious self, so any attempts to find this kind of consciousness will fail.

Of course, this is just one person’s experience. My findings are very much in line with the long traditions of Chan practitioners, but we could all be equally deluded about our own experiences in meditation. So these findings are no proof of anything, and should not be relied on as such. Nevertheless, I will argue that they may have real value for science if they can help to get us out of the delusions we seem to be stuck with. And most important is that they should lead to testable predictions that are different from those currently being made. This could ultimately lead to a better science of consciousness.

I am left with one last question. If there were a future scientist who understood everything about how the brain works and solved the problem of dualism by scientific means would that person thereby also be enlightened? And in the reverse scenario, if there were a great Chan master who realised non-duality directly and then studied the science of consciousness, would he or she thereby become a better scientist and be able to solve the hard problem easily? If I am right that Chan and science can help each other then the answers to both should be Yes.


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Last updated: Monday, 02 January 2017 16:30