Common Sense and Yoga

human-consciousness-1-300x236By Swami B.V. Tripurari

Below, eliminative materialist Paul Churchland illustrates why, in his opinion, it is reasonable for a neuroscientist to conclude that there is no “mind,” what to speak of a “non-physical self” independent of the brain and underlying all that human life consists of. It should be obvious from reading his illustration that he is not a fan of yoga, at least not in terms of yoga’s classical dualistic worldview in which consciousness is a substance different from matter.

Put yourself in the shoes of a neuroscientist who is concerned to trace the origins of behavior back up the motor nerves to the active cells in the motor cortex of the cerebrum, and to trace in turn their activity into inputs from other parts of the brain, and from the various sensory nerves. She finds a thoroughly physical system of awesome structure and delicacy, and much intricate activity, all of it unambiguously chemical or electrical in nature, and she finds no hint at all of any non-physical inputs of the kind that substance dualism proposes. What is she to think? From the standpoint of her researches, human behavior is exhaustively a function of the activity of the physical brain. And this opinion is further supported by her confidence that the brain has the behavior-controlling features it does exactly because those features have been ruthlessly selected for during the brain’s long evolutionary history. In sum, the seat of human behavior appears entirely physical in its constitution, in its origins, and in its internal activities.

However, the experienced yogi will look at this illustration and frame it in reverse. Indeed, one does not even need to be an experienced yogi to do so. All that is required is a little common sense. For an example of such common sense, let me turn to Charles Taliaferro’s response to Churchland.

The neuroscientist should first and foremost believe that she is a person who has concerns; she is tracing parts of the brain; she is feeling awe about the structure and delicacy of what she is studying; she is thinking about human behavior and evolution; she is seeking to explain human behavior. These suppositions cannot be in question without undermining her practice of neuroscience (which requires thinking, observing, explaining, and so on). It is obviously a reasonable question to ask about the role of the brain and one’s overall anatomy when we are thinking in general or doing neuroscience in particular, but any account of the brain-mental activity in casual terms must not begin with greater certainty about how the brain functions than the certainty that one is engaged in thinking about and practicing neuroscience. The task, in other words, should not lie with trying to fit the mental into the physical, but how to understand the physical in relationship to the mental. Arguably, the neuroscientist does not just have hints that she is thinking, feeling awe, and is engaged in neuroscience; she should be certain of this, and if she does not observe the thinking, feeling awe, and the active practice of neuroscience in the observable, “unambiguously chemical or electrical” brain events or any other “thoroughly physical” phenomena, that is good reason for her to believe that thinking, feeling awe, and so on are not identical with such physical events and phenomena.

Here Taliaferro finds a mind and a self that is independent of the brain and thus non-physical, and a self that is at the root of the tree of human behavior’s many branches. He does so intuitively and theoretically, and properly understood there is nothing about his conjecture that violates any natural laws. It is a life confirming conviction: not only are the lights on in our heads, but there is also someone home—and it is our Selves. Yoga is meant to validate this conviction through direct experience of the consciousness underlying the superficiality of our humanity. Consciousness is not black or white, Israeli or Palestinian, and so on. Common sense and yoga can end the struggle for existence. The materialist conjecture that we are differently-wired robots with different concerns relative to our wiring does not hold the same promise.

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5 Responses to Common Sense and Yoga

  1. Maharaja,

    In your opinion, if Vedanta agrees with philosophy of mind’s substance dualism (barring the equation of mind with consciousness), would Vedanta also agree with some of the findings of psychology and behavioral science? If so, are you aware of any psychologists or behavioral scientists that also hold the opinion that the mind has primacy over the body?

    • Not all forms of Vedanta are forms of substance dualism. And those that might be termed such require nuanced explanations. For example, Gaudiya Vedanta posits matter and consciousness to be ontologically different substances in one sense, but at the same time it views both matter and consciousness as saktis of the Godhead. Thus they are technically not entirely different substances. They are both saktis. Furthermore, the are saktis of the Godhead and not different in one sense from Krsna. Gaudiya Vedanta describes reality being nondual—advayjnana tattva. So in one sense it speaks of only one substance with different categories. Thus it could be referred to as a form of category dualism, rather than substance dualism. But the substance that is one and merely has different categories includes categories that are material and those that are spiritual, which in turn looks like substance dualism because more than one substance–matter and consciousness–are acknowledged. So no modern terms really do justice to it.

      I see no reason why a Vedantist would not agree with some findings of psychology, while behaviourism seems out of favour even for materialists. You might look to transpersonal psychology.

  2. I find it rather perplexing how well educated people can fail to notice something so undeniably obvious. What physical evidence is Churchland expecting to find when he looks for these immaterial inputs?

    I’ve always considered Eliminativism a kind of reductio ad absurdum of materialism. Because if the materialist is to be consistent, they should accept Eliminativism as the logically entailed conclusion. But Eliminativism is “self-evidently” absurd.

    Churchland is forced to frame his enquiry within the bounds of consciousness and say, “What is she to think?” Logically, the only thing we can say it’s impossible for her to think is what Eliminativism then proceeds to conclude – since we can’t trace consciousness to these neurons etc, consciousness must not exist. This conclusion always evokes a wry amusement for me since my self remains undeniably certain of it’s existence and smugly says nothing at all in response. How can it possibly be otherwise?

    In his book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness Bliss, David Bentley Hart says –

    “We have reached a point of almost mystically fundamentalist absurdism. Even so, what is really astonishing here is not that some extreme proponents of naturalist thought accept such ideas but that any person of a naturalist bent could imagine that his or her beliefs permit any other conclusions. If one is to exclude the supernatural absolutely from one’s picture of reality, one must … refuse to grant that consciousness could possibly be what it self-evidently is.”

    Maybe the problem here is the fact that this line of thought does logically lead to mysticism as the appropriate methodology. That conclusion is unacceptable since it requires us to surrender our commitment to the naturalist ideals and is seen by many people as a primitive pre-scientific view of reality. After talking to many atheists and naturalists to try and understand their perspective, I’m inclined to think our metaphysical commitments are a direct consequence of our faith, rather than our faith being a consequence of the evidence evaluated by our intellect as naturalists would like to believe. Most people seem to fashion the evidence to fit their natural inclinations rather than the other way round. If the naturalists weren’t in denial on this point, they may have a less condemning attitude towards people who accept faith as a perfectly reasonable conclusion.

  3. The most obvious question to the scientists who believe in spirit based consciousness is: how exactly is spirit exerting it’s influence over matter? Is the soul, for example, capable of inducing electrical current in the brain cells through the thought process? Obviously conscious thoughts and awareness in general is associated with electrical micro currents in the brain. If we could show (prove) that consciousness is capable of generating a micro electric current in a device located OUTSIDE our body, we would have a very strong case that consciousness is separate from the body and that it is consciousness that affects our brain.
    To some extent science is moving in that direction when they study electrical devices helping disabled people through in-brain implants (brain-computer interface). Ultra sensitive devices are now available to measure faint electrical currents. If we could learn how to generate electric currents in outside objects, that would open the door to an extremely exciting new area of science.

    • I’m not sure how generating an electrical current outside the body would make any difference. There’s a lot of psi research. Generally it’s not accepted as an exciting new area of science and instead is dismissed as pseudo-scientific, or derogatively called woo. We can leave that aside anyway, because there’s still an enigma in explaining the electrical impulses the mind generates “inside” the brain.

      The fact that mind/consciousness affects our physical brain isn’t in doubt. Your example of BCI’s are empirical evidence of this. There’s no shortage of empirical evidence if someone isn’t satisfied with their common sense notion that our thoughts have the causal power to move the physical body. This fact is just what makes it a mind-body “problem” and is what needs explaining. How can things so intangible as thoughts, beliefs, desires etc have the power to causally influence the physical?

      The location of the explanatory void is between the causal mental states and the physical effects(eg electrical signals in the brain which then generate further physical effects in nerves, muscles etc). We might as well say it happens by magic because no one has any idea how it does, although there’s no shortage of educated guesses.

      The current naturalist paradigm in Western science/philosophy rests on the assumption that consciousness is in principle causally explainable from the bottom up in terms of our biology, chemistry, and physics and we can understand all this is terms of physical interactions. No extra entity (like spooky minds or souls) exerting downward causation from some immaterial realm is required for a complete explanation.

      This is what drives the dismissal of psi research as pseudo-science and substance dualism as somehow debunked. The idea is almost ubiquitous in the West among philosophers and scientists since it defines the naturalist project that we shouldn’t assume any supernatural entities or forces, and science is the best method for discovering truth about reality. But this position is proving problematic because consciousness resists any reductive explanation even in principle.

      In what feels to me like materialist desperation, Eliminativism goes totally maverick and explains this problem by saying mental states (as we talk of them with common sense or what they call folk-psychology) don’t exist! But it is comforting to know that most naturalists don’t accept this idea, since we’re more sure of the existence of our metal states than we are of Eliminativism, so we should reject Eliminativism.

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