Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Skeptic's Guide To Neuroscience

Just finished reading two books: "A Skeptic's Guide To the Mind" and "Memoirs of an Addicted Brain". Reading them close together was quite useful; the first one prepared me for the second one in many ways. The first book tries its best to show the disconnect between facts and assumptions regarding the relationship between the brain and consciousness and does a fairly good job (though dogged by its own assumptions at times); the second book, while an excellent guide to understanding how addiction works on a neurological level, seemed clearly in the realm of assumption-making, sometimes even equating brain activity with emotion itself.

I'm not thinking to write a review of either book, but rather to provide some related thoughts about what all of this actually has to do with reality. Both books make the unequivocal claim that consciousness is wholly dependent on the brain (which was more than a little disappointing to find in the first book, given how devoted it is to scepticism about everything else neuroscientific). This is where I take issue. It doesn't seem either useful or honest to suggest that reality is solely based on something totally outside of perception, when perception is is the only means of verifying the claimed existence of that something.

What is reality? It's a more important question than it may seem at first. From a Buddhist point of view, it demarcates delusion from wisdom, right practice from wrong, enlightenment from samsara. This has practical consequences; a meditator may spend years devoted to cultivating meditation based on concepts (e.g. focusing on lights or colours, cultivating compassion for living beings, following the in-and-out breaths recollecting the Buddha, etc.) and never come much closer to understanding reality.

From a neuroscientific point of view it matters as well; now that the modern scientific community is finally admitting they really don't know much about curing mental illness after all, it seems pertinent to ask whether they are barking up the entirely wrong tree. For the past century, the focus of psychiatry seems to have been very much on fixing the brain - with drugs, electric shock, or, more reliably, with partial lobotomies. Now that it is pretty clear that none of these treatments really do what they are supposed to (and do much that they are not supposed to), we are told that all they have to do is refine their methodology and poof, they will have the answers to all our mental problems.

If only it were that easy.

Well, in a way, it is easy. Easier, in fact. If we stop and ask the question, "what is real?" we can't help but notice that among the potential candidates for reality, conscious experience seems to rank rather high on the list. We know that the body, the brain, cells, molecules, even atoms and subatomic particles, can be reduced and reduced and reduced until we're not really sure what is left, but consciousness? What could it be reduced to? Consciousness is believed by materialist science to be an emergent property of matter; an epiphenomenon like heat or colour, but that doesn't come any closer to explaining "what it is". But what if we took it for what it appears to be? What if, instead of postulating some underlying, ill-defined physical reality that is understood only conceptually, we approached reality from the point of view of conscious experience? This, I believe is what Buddhism does, and does quite well.

There are two main objections to suggesting that conscious experience is more "real" than the physical universe. First, that the physical universe seems to exist independent of conscious experience; when I look at the roses on our window sill in the morning, they have grown since yesterday. Clearly, their growth had nothing to do with my conscious experience. This obvious truth seems to render any dismissal of an impersonal physical reality somewhat absurd. Or does it? What does it mean to say that "the flowers have grown", really? Such statements are clearly short form for highly complex observations dependent on space, time, memory, and conscious experience. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Does it actually fall? Is Schrodinger’s cat alive or dead? The meaning of such statements depends very much on the existence of meaning itself, something that requires conscious experience.

This may seem somewhat sophistic, but it's not, really. If consciousness didn't exist, how could "meaning" exist at all? Or time? Space? Colour and heat are two further examples of this problem; there is nothing intrinsically "colourful" about light, nothing "hot" about subatomic particles. Colour and heat are completely dependent on conscious experience. We don't really see or feel the physical world around us; our subjective extrapolations of experience create a representation of in the mind. In this sense, observable reality is exactly the opposite of what material science claims; rather than impersonal physical particles in consciousness-independent space-time creating conscious experience, it appears by any observation that it is the extrapolation of conscious experience that creates such concepts as "space", "time", "roses" or "growth".

Okay, you say, but the roses did grow. Didn't they? To my mind, they did grow. But again, such concepts only have meaning in relation to my own conscious experience. A world without consciousness is as meaningless as an invisible creator God. Whether it is possible to create a complete paradigm of reality based on such a world, it seems no more valid and far less useful than creating a similar paradigm based on conscious experience, where changes in physical phenomena are seen in terms of observation, rather than the other way around.

This sort of mind-bending distinction is important here because it will inform our treatment of mental illness; if we subscribe to a physicalist paradigm, we will focus on fixing the grey stuff inside our heads. If we subscribe to an experientialist paradigm, we will focus on fixing consciousness. Two very different approaches to the same problem. And with very different results - if it is true that the brain has total control over conscious experience, physical treatment of mental illness certainly hasn't shown it, whereas clinical studies of the effects of meditation on the brain provide persuasive evidence of what meditators have known all along, that first-hand experience is key to unravelling the mysteries of the mind.

The second objection to an experiential paradigm is that physical phenomena are observed to have a causal effect on mental phenomena. Putting aside the problematic concept of causation, which Dr. Burton discusses in "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind", it is undeniable that, for example, medical drugs have a strong effect on the mind. The second book mentioned does an excellent job proving that much. Dr. Burton's book, as well, discusses this point, referring to the famous Libet experiment wherein it is shown that the brain has already decided prior to us consciously making a decision. The problem with such arguments, however, is that they rely on an a priori assumption of the independent existence of matter. An experientialist paradigm doesn't require one to ignore the findings of modern neuroscience, or postulate free-will of any sort; it simply states that such observations are entirely dependent on first-hand experience. Experientialism, in the sense meant here, doesn't attempt to reduce physical phenomena to mental phenomena or vice versa; it simply confines itself to making observations about conscious experience. To do more is, I would argue, speculative.

Such ideas are not new, not mine, not even specifically Buddhist. As Niels Bohr said:

In our description of nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of phenomena but only to track down as far as possible relations between the manifold aspects of our experience.

Or John Wheeler:

No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.

Suppose we grant that drugs alter conscious experience (something even I can attest to). Is it not equally, though less familiarly, fair to say that our experience changes based on prior experiences? The obvious objection is that taking drugs is not necessarily and "experience"; nor is, say, undergoing a frontal lobotomy. Or is it? If we admit causality between posited physical entities and observed mental experiences, why would it not be fair to suggest the causality was completely experiential? Meaning that our ever-changing experience of reality brought us to the point where we appeared to undergo (or administer) physical treatment of mental illness?

What I want to stress again is that I am not proposing a speculative theory of causality like folk-karmic retribution; all I propose is a paradigm shift. For most of us, it is already clear to some extent that our experiences dictate which physical phenomena we contact during our lives; what is to stop us from giving ourselves over entirely to this paradigm and relegating physical treatment of mental illness to what it appears to be - an experiential phenomenon to be observed, studied and understood? Maybe then we would unravel the mystery of why, for the past century, scientists, doctors and most importantly pharmaceutical companies have been peddling the neurological equivalent of snake oil. Maybe then we would see that it is our minds - the greed, the anger, the delusion that governs much of our conscious experience and, by extension, our societies - that are at the root of the world's problems.

This is important for Buddhism. Maybe not important enough to write over 1500 words about, but there it is. The first step towards enlightenment is right view, which simply means seeing reality from the proper paradigm. The theory, which holds perfectly in practice, is that if you are not looking at reality in the right way, you will never be able to approach the understanding of it. A physicalist paradigm is useless in practice - it gives rise to stress, depression, anger and immorality for the simple reason that it doesn't describe the first-hand experience of the mind that subscribes to it. An idealist paradigm (which says that reality is entirely mental) is equally useless, for similar reasons. An experientialist paradigm fits perfectly, by its very definition, with the reality it seeks to describe, focusing only on those phenomena as can be understood first-hand without postulating a physical or mental substratum. As a result, it can never fall prey to the dissociation from reality that plagues the other, more theoretical paradigms.

As a result, it is perfectly suited for understanding and overcoming mental illness.

Why do I write these things? Maybe I think some people will find them interesting. Mostly, this is just thinking out loud, laying out concepts not fully-formed, that may be useful to me and others in the future. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but think of these thoughts as instigation for further dialogue and study of these issues. But I suppose I also have some idea of helping people who suffer needlessly from mental illness or, even worse, encourage invasive "treatment" of mental illness that leaves one worse than the sickness it was meant to cure.

Just thoughts. Peace to all :)