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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