Consciousness - His Holiness the Dalai Lama Participates in the 26th Mind & Life Meeting at Drepung - Day 4

January 20th 2013

Drepung Lachi, Mundgod, Karnataka, India, 20 January 2013 - The pattern of this meeting has been for there to be morning and afternoon sessions in the Drepung Lachi Monastery during which several scientists and scholars have made their presentations and there is some time for questions and discussion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has participated in all these sessions so far with attentive interest. There has been an opportunity for members of the audience to ask the presenters questions every day following the afternoon session. Today, this will take place in the Drepung Loseling assembly hall where several thousand monastics have been following the proceedings. There is also to be a special opportunity for nuns to meet and hold discussions with the female scholars and scientists in the Mind & Life group.

Today, the overall topic was the nature of consciousness. Christof Koch, who has pioneered the scientific investigation of consciousness, opened with an acknowledgement that he belonged to a tradition that has included Plato, Descartes, Darwin and his own mentor, Francis Crick. He said,


His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Christof Koch during the fourth day of the Mind and Life XXVI meeting at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 20, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL
“We take a physicalist approach to investigating the world. In the empirical examination of nature, theories have to be testable. Quantum mechanics has nothing to tell us about consciousness; the periodic table of elements likewise has nothing to tell us.”

There is no question of what it feels like to be a radio, for example, and yet the brain has consciousness. He called this the explanatory gap. The motto under which he is pursuing the science of consciousness is a quotation from Galileo, ‘Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not.’ In attempting to do this, distinction is made between the state of consciousness and its content.

What do we know about consciousness? It is associated with some complex biological networks, but, for example, our immune system functions without it. Our liver and other complex organs function without consciousness. His Holiness asked at what level we find the basis of consciousness and Christof answered that we can speculate, but we do not know. Consciousness does not require language or self-consciousness. All mammals have consciousness. The brain tissue of human beings, mice and dogs is very similar, the mechanism of the brain is similar too, and the difference seems to be size. A bee has a small brain, which is far more complex than the average animal, so Christof thought it may feel like something to be a bee. Maybe all biological creatures with a brain are conscious, we don’t know.

“What are people looking for in the laboratory? The footprint of consciousness in the brain. We cannot conceive how there can be consciousness with not brain or when the brain is dead - as we say ‘No brain, never mind.’ We love machines; I wonder if we can make one that knows what if feels like to be a machine? If we can, it will help us measure consciousness.”

Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk with scientific training offered a Buddhist perspective on consciousness. He said the Buddha tried to bridge the gap between the way things appear and the way they are. The truth he found was almost impossible to express in words. He did not teach this is the truth, take it or leave it. Instead, he said, here’s a map, follow it; this is what I have understood.

Things don’t arise without a cause, Mathieu reminded his listeners, and therefore, we say that a moment of consciousness is preceded by another moment of consciousness. Within our minds we see thoughts, memories and a basic faculty of knowing. Accomplished practitioners speak of clear, vivid awareness.

“In Richie’s lab, what did they find? They found I had a brain.”

As Christof remarked, science is about measuring what can be measured. Mathieu said he measures consciousness with the telescope of mind - introspection. This seems natural. We cannot deny consciousness; consciousness is primary in our experience. If consciousness didn’t exist, we would have to ask, ‘Who or what is looking?’


Mathieu Ricard presenting the Buddhist perspective to consciousness during the fourth day of the Mind and Life XXVI meeting at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 20, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL
Mathieu cited three sources of information that have an interesting bearing on the nature of consciousness. The first was the work of Ian Stephenson, a scholar at Virginia University who collected stories from across the world of people who had memories of previous lives. He kept and published only those that could be explained in no other way. The second source is people who have had and reported near death experiences, while the third are instances in which there seems to have been mind to mind communication. Mathieu told a story from his own experience.

Having spoken about two Indian girls he had met with clear recollection of their former lives, His Holiness also mentioned that he had once remarked to his senior tutor, with whom he was very close, that he seemed to have moments of clairvoyance and Ling Rinpoche replied, “Yes, it sometimes happens.” Added to which is the fact that he later spent 13 days in posthumous meditative absorption.

When Christof asked if the subtle mind is only accessible to accomplished practitioners, His Holiness responded,

“The subtle mind is the basis of mind. The co-operative cause of mind is the human body, but the substantial cause is consciousness.”

Tania asked if mind is luminous and always associated with subtle energy, how is information conveyed. His Holiness’s response was,

“That’s true, there is subtle energy and the mind accompanying it is equally subtle. Texts often compare the energy to a blind man with good legs and the mind to a sighted person with no mobility. The sighted mind rides the mobile blind man. The information is in the form of imprints and traces that actions leave on the mind.”

In the afternoon, Rajesh Kasturirangan expressed his honour at participating in this beautiful dialogue and recalled Gandhi’s remark about wanting to open the windows of his house, but not wanting to be blown off his feet. He proposed that a computational method from mathematics offered an appropriate and accurate approach to understanding the mind.

Michel Bitbol asked whether consciousness has a material basis and offered an answer in a quotation from one of Christof’s books, ‘Subjectivity is too radically different to be an emergent phenomenon.’ William James said, ‘Brain and consciousness could be described as two sides of the same thought, the one convex the other concave.’ The important thing, he said, is the primacy of experience.

Michel pointed out the blind spot of science, that the seer does not see itself. He quoted the Japanese philosopher, Kitaro, ‘As soon as one has adopted the standpoint of objective knowledge, the knower doesn’t enter into the visual field.’ Although Christof claimed to be confused, Michel went on to say that what Francisco Varela, one of the founders of Mind & Life, wanted was an approach that cultivates both the objective and subjective standpoints and connects them. Richie Davidson’s response to this was that it requires someone who is able to produce a truthful report of their own mind. Michel agreed that people’s reports about their own experience are sometimes unreliable, however there is a new method of an accompanying interviewer recording experience that seems a promising way of ensuring a reliable account.

Summing up the day’s energetic discussions, Arthur Zajonc said,

“I hope we come to a point where we can be agnostic about the substrate of consciousness.”

His Holiness commented,

“This is wonderful; real discussion. I have nothing special to add, but I really enjoyed this frank exchange. If everyone simply agrees and approves of what is said, we don’t move forward. Thank you.”
 
 

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