Mind Brain and Buddhism – A skeptical Response
Posted on July 18th, 2013

R Chandrasona

In a recent contribution to your Journal Akila Weerasekara writes inter alia as follows – ‘We theorize that a single citta or a group of cittas with accompanying mental factors (cetasikas) can affect the probability of release of the chemical transmitter substance at synaptic junctions. This triggers the cascade of electrical signals necessary for neuronal communications. The probability of release could be dependent on the nature of the citta’. There is nothing characteristically Buddhist in this assertion as it is a restatement of the age-old belief that a separate entity or faculty called the Mind directs physical processes in the brain. This ancient explanatory archetype is expressed in diverse ways across cultures. In recent Western philosophies, this explanatory stance is called ‘Dualism’ – the belief that there are two fundamentally different ‘stuffs’ constituting the world – Mind-stuff and Matter. That the former (Mind) is superior to the

material base it ‘rides’ was treated as obvious. It was argued that matter – however well organized – was incapable of providing a true explanation of mind and intelligence. It followed that the body is not autonomous – that a ghostly entity must ‘direct the body’ if we are to do justice to our faculties of rationality and judgement. The general objection to this line of reasoning is that if mind and matter are categorically different, how can there be any causative relationship between them? How can a thought modify a molecule?

The Buddhist variant of this general position has a dynamic assembly of mental events (thoughts and ‘thought modifiers’ – citta and cetasika) replacing the ‘mind’ as an overarching and distinct entity. (That great organ in the head “”…” the Brain “”…” was ignored “”…” a wonderful example of mind overriding matter!) In place of the classical notion that the Mind influences matter, the ‘savants’ in Buddhism, eschewing all forms of categorial permanence in accordance with the doctrine of Anatta, ‘deconstructed’ the Mind as classically understood into a collection of causative mental agencies or ‘thoughts’. This is the ‘bundle theory of the mind’ that has echoes in Freudean Psychology. It has no fundamental bearing on the conflict beween ‘materialists’ and ‘spiritualists’ on the nature of the mental. The ruling wisdom of our day is that the science of the body is prior to any religious or quasi-religious ‘theorizing’ on the nature of the spirit. This science

tells us unequivocally that the Brain and the Nervous System in their bodily incorporation are the sources of all human action. The spiritual interventions and the supposed primacy of the mental are religious hypotheses that have long been defeated by science. That religion has a ‘magisterium’ of its own is not contested here – what is denied is that religion can help us to undrstand physical nature of the universe. Regarding mind and spirit, the most that can be said is that these non-material aspects of mental functioning “ƒ”¹…”supervene’ on the physical. This means that they are useful “ƒ”¹…”idioms’ in accounting for the phenomenology of complex behaviour but have no deep ontological significance.

That the case of ‘brain-thinning’ due to childhood hydrocephalus (given prominance in the article mentioned above) challenges our contemporary understanding of brain-functioning is something that all will accept. To rush from this to an explanatory hypothesis that is couched in terms that have no currency in science is extraordinarily rash. It is said that one swallow does not make a summer. To drag in ancient and bizzare metaphysics to solve an isolated puzzle in neurophysiology is in the same class. To conclude, let me implore religious apologists not to start from a position that their faith is inviolable and sacrosanct while science is corrigible and needs revelatory infusions from the great spiritual learning of the past. The very opposite is the painful truth “”…” religions struggle to keep alive straddled with a dated cosmology and with an understanding of physical nature that even the naƒÆ’†’¯ve believer finds difficult to swallow “”…” such things as

the four-element theory of matter, the substance-attribute dynamic of material transformation and the preposterous infinitely old cyclic universe. That these “ƒ”¹…”archaisms’ borrowed from other ancient cultures have corrupted the refined spirituality of pristine Buddhism will not be denied by those who place truth before a hidebound pietism.

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