104 A Buddhist perspective on awareness with Dr. John Dunne

[00:00:00] John Dunne: The Buddha can’t save you. You know, and there are many Buddhas, actually, you know, the Buddhas, the many Buddhas, the infinite number of Buddha in the Infinite Multiverse; they can’t save you. You have to save yourself. And in order to do that, you have to analyze the nature of reality in order to save yourself.

[00:00:19] Al Scott: The Rational View is a weekly series hosted by me, Dr. Alan Scott, providing a rational evidence based perspective on important societal issues.

[00:00:34] Soapbox Media: Produced by Soapbox Media.

[00:00:39] Al Scott: Hello, welcome to another episode of The Rational View. I’m your host, Dr. Al Scott. In this episode, I continue my exploration of consciousness, exploring a field of inquiry that’s focused almost exclusively on consciousness and awareness for hundreds of years. Although it is not [00:01:00] science, Buddhism has a uniquely close relation with physics and physicists being off quoted.

[00:01:06] Books that come to mind are the Tao of Physics, or the Dancing Woo Lee Masters, which explore the parallels between quantum physics and and Buddhist thought. I hope you enjoy this foray into the Buddhist mind. If you enjoy my content, please hit like on your podcast app. Please share with your friends, and if you’d like to join the conversation look us up on Facebook @ the Rational View.

[00:01:35] Dr. John Dunne serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Madison, where he holds the distinguished chair in contemplative humanities at the Center for Healthy Minds. He’s also distinguished professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures where he currently serves as department chair. Dr. Dunne’s work focuses on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, especially in [00:02:00] dialogue with cognitive science and psychology. His publications appear in venues ranging across both the humanities and the sciences, and they include works on Buddhist philosophy, contemplative practices, and their empirical examination interpretation within scientific context. John Dunn speaks in both academic and public context, and he occasionally teaches for Buddhist communities, including the Ghandi Centers of Denmark and Australia, and Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. In addition to serving as core faculty for the Center for Healthy Minds, he’s a fellow of the Mind and Life Institute where he has previously served on the board of directors, and he’s an academic advisor to the Rang Jung Yeshi Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal.

[00:02:44] Dr. Dunne, welcome to The Rational View.

[00:02:46] John Dunne: Thanks, Al. Great to be here.

[00:02:48] Al Scott: Appreciate you coming on. Could you, could you tell me a little bit about your background? Are you actually a practicing Buddhist?

[00:02:53] John Dunne: I am. I am actually a practicing Buddhist. I started practicing Buddhism when I left pretty [00:03:00] soon after I left the United States Air Force Academy where I went first went after high school cuz I wanted to be an astronaut. My students say I, I kind of joke about, I think they think I’m still an astronaut, I just don’t need a spaceship, you know. But anyway I I then back at that time, I was actually ended up at Amherst College and I started studying with a fellow named Robert Thurman, who’s now at Columbia University, better known as Uma’s father, Uma Thurman’s father. And he’s actually a very well known Buddhist scholar. And I just got hooked really in part because of issues around identity, because I was so invested in that kind of adolescent dream of, you know, leaving the planet that when, when that fell apart, I really didn’t know who I was. Which is I think something I see a lot in my students these days as well. A lot of confusion about so many choices about who they are and how they should be, and it’s really hard. Mm-hmm. So in any case, I then just kind of dove right into it and you know, finished my degree and Amherst did a little kind of wandering about for a while, [00:04:00] but then eventually ended up at graduate school in at Harvard University. And all along this time I continued to practice Buddhism, primarily in Tibetan Buddhist traditions, although I have a connection with pretty much all the main Buddhist traditions these days. And I did my I did my doctoral work on Buddhist epistemology before eventually landing here at the University of Wisconsin.

[00:04:22] Al Scott: Now, was your, was your original upbringing religious in any way or, or a- religious?

[00:04:27] John Dunne: Yeah, I was raised a Catholic, you know, pretty devout Catholic, although my mother was, well she used to refer to the, to the previous Pope is “that bastard.” So she had a certain, she had a love hate relationship.

[00:04:41] Yes. . So yeah, she definitely you know, was, was devout but in her own way. And but now, you know, there was even talk at one point of me becoming a, a Catholic priest. So, you know, being kind of religious was, was definitely part of my background.

[00:04:58] Al Scott: Interesting. And, [00:05:00] and but your original goal was to become an astronaut. So it, you know, that’s much more of a sciencey kind of approach to, to a calling. So that, did you see any conflict with those two approaches, or, or how did you feel about that?

[00:05:15] John Dunne: Not really. I mean, not really, because in some ways I think I just sort of the, you know, the urge to transcendence you might say, that’s in, that’s a feature of, of so many spiritual traditions that just kind of manifested in me as an urge to get the heck off the planet , you know and so in some ways it was really continuous and there are versions of course, of Christianity, for example, that can really conflict with science. But there are other ways, and actually the Catholic Church is interesting in this regard. It certainly has a long history of resisting scientific progress, but also it has a, a long history of serious engagement with science you know, to this day actually.

[00:05:58] So it [00:06:00] wasn’t really something that it at all presented to me as a conflict back when.

[00:06:04] Al Scott: Very cool. So, for those of us who are not that familiar with Buddhism, is there, would, would you say, is there a core inalienable doctrine or religious belief associated with Buddhism? Could you maybe give us a, a quick overview?

[00:06:17] John Dunne: Yeah, that’s a good question. So one of the things about Buddhism that’s helpful to know is that Buddhism, unlike, especially when we think of Christianity in the modern time, we really emphasize the idea of what one believes, and that, you know, you have to believe something in order to be a Christian. So that’s an orthodoxy. Like you’ve got, you know yeah, the, the “dox” so to speak, right? The the set of beliefs that you have to keep straight; ortho. But this is actually, in some ways Buddhism is more like an orthopraxy, which means that there are certain kinds of practices one should adhere to, but the beliefs can be really quite wide ranging. So in a sense, you. What makes you kind of socially a member of the Buddhist community is, [00:07:00] is what’s called going for refuge, which basically sort of says, you know, there’s, this is a spiritual path that I wanna follow a path whose goal is to relieve suffering and I’m gonna join other people and, you know, follow the advice of those who’ve proceeded me to see if I can also achieve that goal. And then whatever you believe after that is not, doesn’t technically make you a Buddhist or not a Buddhist, which is kind of interesting.

[00:07:24] So having said that, however you could say one really particularly important theory in Buddhism was what’s called the Nobles four truths. Or sometimes you’ll hear the four noble truths. And they are first that there is suffering, like, in other words, there’s something fundamentally dissatisfactory about our experience, about our lives. That there’s an origin of that suffering, a causal origin of that suffering. That the sensation of that suffering can be achieved and has been achieved by some. And that there’s a a method or a path in order to get there.[00:08:00]

[00:08:00] So that’s kind of the core. If you don’t accept that, then you could be a Buddhist sort of socially, but you’re not really gonna be able to practice very effectively cuz it’s all about, you know, implementing understanding, and there’s a lot of emphasis on kind of rational inquiry and analysis, understanding what the nature of existence is in order to understand how we are, you know, what is causing our dissatisfaction. And and then, you know, implementing methods to get past that.

[00:08:29] Al Scott: This particular path is, is maybe the doctrine, is that you to be a Buddhist?

[00:08:34] John Dunne: Well, you can say the, yeah, right. So there’s, I mean, that whole package is, so there’s gonna be an analysis of what suffering really means, and then an analysis of the claims about an origin of suffering. And the fundamental origin is basically confusion. Like we’re confused about the nature of reality and that’s why we’re suffering. And then there is the concept of the cessation of suffering, which, you know, kind of classically is referred to as nirvana. And then there’s a, a method to get there. [00:09:00] So all four of those will have, you know, really quite extensive texts. I mean, there’s really no Buddhist bible, I guess in some ways. You know, if you look at the Tibetan tradition, for example, the Buddhist Bible would consist of 108 texts. That 108 volumes have about 800 pages each it’s like, you know, including things that contradict each other. Deliberately. Yeah, because, you know, you have some people need to hear one thing and other people need to hear another thing. So anyway the basic idea is that there’s a kind of process and all elements of that process need to be understood. There’s a process that produces, you know, dissatisfaction and there’s also a process of reversing that.

[00:09:43] Al Scott: Hmm. Now, the, the Dalai Lama has mentioned reliance on causality and empiricism are common philosophical principles shared by Buddhism and science. Would you agree with that observation?

[00:09:58] John Dunne: Yes, I would. I’ve [00:10:00] actually had the pleasure of spending a fair amount of time with this Dalai Lama, and you know, was at a meeting, my first time I really, I spent a lot of time with him, was back in 2007 at his, actually at his residence in exile in, in Northern India.

[00:10:15] When we gathered a group of scientists to kind of have a response to his book, to his book called The Universe in a Single Atom, where he says this you know makes this statement, although he’d probably made it before then too.

[00:10:26] And basically, yes. So there’s, there are different you know, one thing to remember is there Buddhism is, you know, really variable and across different cultures and different traditions and so on. But there’s definitely a set of core traditions that the Tibetans follow coming from India, which very strongly emphasize empiricism to the point that if so, there’s a seventh century philosopher I’ve worked out on a lot named Connor Mcarthy. And basically, you know, what he says is the Buddha’s word actually never proves anything that you can’t prove [00:11:00] yourself. And if you, if it, it tends to prove something that is trans empirical, right, that is beyond empirical access, then you could use it psychologically to, in a sense, kind of motivate yourself or whatever, but it does not prove anything. It cannot prove the, you know, the words of the budha improve the existence of some trans empirical entity. And all the important stuff, including, you know, those, that, that basic theory about suffering and the relief of suffering, all that can be proven empirically. So that’s a very strong position because in this strand of Buddhism, and, and a big reason for that is the idea that really you, you know, you can’t, the Buddha can’t save you, you know, and there are many Buddhas actually, you know, the Buddha, the many Buddhas, the infinite number of Buddhas and the infinite multiverse, they can’t save you. You have to save yourself. And in order to do that, you have to analyze the nature of reality in order to save yourself. And then if you [00:12:00] don’t, you know, without, and not that understanding of the true nature of reality, you’re just gonna keep, you know, spinning around on the merry around, as they say, of the, the wheel of life.

[00:12:11] Al Scott: So we have to be involved in this. We can’t just believe in something and be saved. It’s a very active philosophy.

[00:12:20] John Dunne: Yeah. And there are versions of this philosophy, which are very interesting, which the sort of final account is to say that all beliefs, no beliefs are ultimately true. In other words, you can have models of the world and they can be useful and effective, but there’s no single ultimately true model. That’s kind of, you know, the, the final account, the god’s eye view of everything, the theory of everything. That is a delusion.

[00:12:46] Al Scott: Well, that’s a, that’s an interesting philosophical standpoint. It’s kind of, there is no, there is no truth. We can’t, we can’t achieve a true understanding. I can see why that’s a, we’re all confused about [00:13:00] reality.

[00:13:00] John Dunne: Yes. And final, true, ultimate. And one of the way of thinking about it is map is not territory. Like, there’s this story that Bhe or Bo Louis Bore wrote very short story. I can’t remember the title of it. But basically it’s about, you know, the emperor wants a map made of the empire, and the map makers go and they make a map and they come back. They says, No, I want more detail. And they keep going. Then finally they make map that is the size of the empire, in other words. And now it’s not a map anymore, it’s the territory. Right? So maps always, when our, our, you know, our theories about whatever, scientific theories, other kinds of theories, they’re always maps of something. So the map can’t be the territory. If it becomes the territory, it’s not a map anymore. So I think that’s one way to think about it, is that maps are always just maps. They’re not the territory.

[00:13:51] Al Scott: Interesting. So you can’t simplify reality to, to a few underlying postulates.

[00:13:58] John Dunne: You can. [00:14:00] But if you think the postulates are the reality, then you’re, you’re mistaken.

[00:14:05] You know, it’s like the old zen finger pointing to the moon. Don’t think when, don’t think the finger is the moon. Of course, if you’re, if, if you’re a realist, you know, an objective realist have a lot. If when it’s very objectiveist about mathematical entities, then you know, there were, those people won’t agree with this position cause they think then that the map is the reality actually.

[00:14:30] But that, that sends us in a different direction. Basically, Buddhist are kind of anti platonic. Okay. You know, instead of thinking that the real thing is the ideal form or what have you, it’s actually the stuff that you can in fact, touch, see, sense, smell. You know, that’s the real stuff. And then the, the mental abstractions are just that; they were abstractions. They may be helpful, but they’re not reality.

[00:14:57] Al Scott: The subjective experience is the reality. [00:15:00]

[00:15:00] John Dunne: Well, no, the, the stuff that causes your perceptual content is the reality.

[00:15:08] Al Scott: You, you mentioned that there’s 108 texts of, of Buddhist thought to, to go through-

[00:15:14] John Dunne: Well actually there’s 225 additional ones, but we won’t go there.

[00:15:18] Al Scott: Science evolves through, you know, what I would say empirical challenge and reproduction of experiments. Religion typically evolves through argument from authority. Is Buddhist doctrine static or does it evolve and if it evolves, how do new subjective findings become accepted doctrine?

[00:15:35] John Dunne: So that’s a really really great question, Al. And so I would say that Im principle, so again following this particular strand of Buddhist thought that his soloist, likes to refer to as the nalanda tradition, Nolanda was a really amazing monastic universe excuse me, university established probably around the start of the common era in ancient India, in what’s in the now the [00:16:00] modern state of Behar, not too far from the place where the Buddhist said to have become enlightened.

[00:16:05] And so in that university they certainly talked this type of material and they would adhere to you know, verbal testimony doesn’t add anything. It might help direct you to your empirical, you know, to engage with something empirically. But verbal testimony doesn’t in itself prove anything, including the word of the Buddha, right?

[00:16:27] So that principle. Was not necessarily upheld by all Buddhist by any means. And even that intellectual tradition itself kind of struggled with the, And we even see this in science to a certain extent. Right. And Thomas k of course, talks about this in context of scientific revolutions. It’s the, the sort of weight of what came before can be hard to overcome when there are received theories about the way things are, like neuroplasticity for [00:17:00] example, you know, all the brain doesn’t change after certain point in life. Just that, you know, it’s set; that turns out to have, that was, you know, received dogma. But that turns out to be wrong. We now know. Likewise the Buddhist traditions had positions that they upheld that have turned out to be wrong, but the process of correcting them basically, the more authoritative the person who made those claims were, the harder it gets to revise them.

[00:17:33] So sometimes revision is easy because it’s just some, you know, some mildly well known philosopher who is not so authoritative that you can’t gain say him or her. But in most cases it’s not that easy. So, one way sometimes in Buddhism this is done is that, is the introduction of texts that make new claims and that are even attributed to the budha. [00:18:00] And if, and traditionally they would just say, Oh, this was spoken by the budha. But you know, looking in from the outside, kind of academically, it looks like, oh, this is a way of introducing new ideas in later generations. Including even the idea of what are called treasure texts in Tibetan Buddhism, which are essentially are texts that are implanted in the minds of people and then these people reincarnate and then after some centuries, you know, there’s a trigger and then the text is revealed. You know, and this text is planted by someone who has a lot of authority, right? So that’s one way of bringing new ideas into the tradition. You know, you setting aside whether what the tradition’s, truth claims about the process are. Just to see that as a method is quite interesting, where you can kind of have ongoing revelation, but as holiness that.la has also really tried to encourage a process, which is just, you know, empirical investigation.

[00:18:53] And for example, the the ancient Buddhist cosmology is really a flat earth cosmology, not [00:19:00] surprising since it, you know, dates from fourth century BC in its earliest form. And he has and no, and, and the Tibetan Buddhist, and I think actually Bob Thurman, my former teacher once described this, seeing that they saw, you know, that famous blue marbled picture. He was in India at the time, and that, and somebody got a hold of it, some westerner, and showed it to a bunch of these Tibetan scholars and, you know, is clearly like the earth is round. This is a, and they, and they just sort of said, Oh, okay. You know, they didn’t have a big deal about it. But his holiness is really pushed to say, you know, rather than just say, Oh, okay, whatever. Let’s really revise our cosmology to be more in line with what we know in terms of modern cosmology coming from, you know, astronomy, astrophysics. And he’s been moderately successful in trying to have these kinds of updates, but it’s still not easy, frankly. So this is the one place I have [00:20:00] written about this where the, you know, quote unquote scientific aspects of Buddhism don’t quite live up to that, that idea, because revision historically, has been very tough. It kind of stopped. It largely stopped about a thousand years ago.

[00:20:18] Al Scott: Okay. So, it’s much more difficult now to, to add or, or change texts because of this weight of authority.

[00:20:26] John Dunne: Yes, exactly. The weight of authority really makes it tough, but I think we are actually in a period where it’s starting again. You know, I mean, Buddhism started in five, around 500 BC. And up until around the, you know, end of the first millennium, there’s lots of revision, lots of, you know things that are being reconsidered, but then especially a lot of the empirical claims kind of don’t get revised after that point. And it seems like that’s starting to happen.

[00:20:52] Al Scott: Interesting. Getting to a, a new topic here, and this is something I’ve been looking at recently in my series of podcasts is consciousness and [00:21:00] awareness. And I know Buddhism is, is, is very tightly associated with our experience and our, our thinking and our consciousness and awareness.

[00:21:08] Could you summarize for us the kind of the Buddhist understanding of, of, of, you know, maybe the hard problem of consciousness or of consciousness and awareness itself? You’ve, you’ve referenced a soul or a reincarnation and maybe just give us an oversight of what the Buddhist position is on this.

[00:21:26] John Dunne: Sure. I mean, there’s actually no single Buddhist position. There are many different Buddhist positions, and I’ll try to represent you a particular version of that that comes out of the Tibetan traditions.

[00:21:36] And so one thing that is important to understand is that for Buddhist one of the ways in which we are confused, and the confusion causes of suffering, is the belief that there is a single autonomous controlling self. Like the one who’s hearing, listening right now, the one that’s thinking right [00:22:00] now, the person who’s breathing, the person who’s choosing to nod their head, you know, whatever, that there’s such a person who is in control and that you know. So then you know the non Buddhist traditions in India. Would say that there is such a thing. And that’s the thing that gets reincarnated. And they call that the Atman which is a word for self, like capitalized self. It’s kind of controlling indivisible, autonomous objective self. The little guy, you know, there’s that, that old Woody Allen movie of the guy inside your brain like running the show, you know?

[00:22:40] But so that humunculous, that vision is the, the target of a lot of Buddhist arguments to say that there’s no such thing, that there’s no center, there’s nobody in control, nobody’s in charge. And there, you know, there’s there’s no controlling part of the body, mind, body system, like some little node in your brain that like is in charge of [00:23:00] everything.

[00:23:01] And so that, so con, their model of consciousness is built around that account of what we call selflessness. Right where that kind of self does not exist. Of course, you can say you have a self in a, in a, in a more, in a different way, but not in that sense. Right. And that what part of what that means is that the model of consciousness is not built around the idea of there being a kind of center from which, like a central perspective that you’re sort of looking out on the world.

[00:23:32] There is a perspective in our experience, right, a sense of like, there’s an out there and an in here, but that’s not who you are. That, you know, the person who’s on this end of, of the tunnel of sight, so to speak, is not who you are. That’s only a, a structural feature of your visual experience. So that moment, so that account, part of that account of consciousness has certain implications or way it’s developed, and one of them is [00:24:00] that consciousness is momentary. So one, like our usual conceptualization of the way we are as people, like, you know, I’m the same person I was five minutes ago, or maybe even 10 years ago. That there’s a sense I would like, you know, John, my name refers to the same being. Somehow the buddhi would say, Actually, no, not really. We can talk about, you know, a stream, a causal stream. And in that sense there’s continuity, but there, but that causal, causal stream is constantly changing. So consciousness is actually a causal stream of experiences one after the next, after the next that are causally in. So the previous moment of experience is causely conditioning, the present moment of experience. It’s being causely conditioned by also, it’s the environment and interactions with the environment. And so consciousness is just sort of flowing along in time in this way. In a complex causal process. [00:25:00] And the you know, the goal of Buddhist practice is in a sense to that there are certain features of that causal process that are dysfunctional and you wanna straighten that out basically.

[00:25:10] Al Scott: This, this actually has an interesting parallel and then that concept has been picked up by, by physicists who’ve been investigating consciousness. You may have heard of Sir Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, and they, they have a theory of quantum mind. And then their discussion of orchestrated objective reduction of the quantum wave function they, they reference Buddhist text on momentary collections of mental phenomenon and was, I say distinct unconnected in Im permanent moments that perish as soon as they arise. And they, they actually reference the Sarvastivada, which describes 6,480,000 moments in 24 hours. And some Chinese Buddhist has suggest that one thought is takes 20 milliseconds.

[00:25:54] So, so these actually represent frequencies of, of conscious experience in the order of [00:26:00] 50 to 75 hertz, which interestingly correlates well with the gamma brainwave frequency associated with conscious awareness of between 30 to to 90 hertz. So I, I found that as an interesting coincidence.

[00:26:12] John Dunne: It is, it is interesting. And Evan Thompson wrote a little bit about some of the work that, that showed this, that attempted to show this in his book, Sleeping, Sleeping, Dreaming, being my friend Evan Thompson, the philosopher, and who also wrote a very interesting book called I, Why I Am Not a Buddhist more recent publication.

[00:26:30] So but I also, I, I actually have written an article in philosophy East and West, The Journal kind of critiquing a little bit this, because it’s not really, even though we can kind of come up with those numbers, it’s not that simple. And there are many different accounts. So if we, there are enough different accounts that if we just dig enough, we’ll find a version that we can kind of make sound like aligns with modern neuroscience. But yeah, I wouldn’t, you know, the sarva [00:27:00] is just one version, you know? And it’s, I wouldn’t over emphasize that, but it seems to be a, a certain coincidence there. You know, it’s I think it’s, you know, one way of accounting for this is the idea that a moment, a mental moment is one 64th of the snap of a finger. And it’s like, it’s, so does that mean there’s, you know, some Monk in the Cave and the Himalayas, who’s kinda the time keeper?

[00:27:29] Al Scott: Like this is empiracle, right? How did you get there?

[00:27:31] John Dunne: Yeah. So, you know, it’s a little not to be disparaging, but you know, I just don’t wanna make it that seem quite, that closely aligned. There’s a lot we can learn from those kinds of Buddhist texts, including the Sarvastivata. And there’s a new volume called the Mind and it’s volume 2 in science and philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics by Wisdom Publications. This is a volume that is, that Lama you know conceived and sponsored and then brought a team [00:28:00] of Tibetans together. It’s a really interesting volume and if you wanna read more about some of those theories that are coming outta Sarvastivada and other traditions, I highly recommend that that volume called the Mind.

[00:28:10] But You know, basically, I think you could say that the, the intuition that is really valuable here is this notion that the consciousness is sort of a causal flux. That I think is very powerful. And, and, and also that consciousness is embedded in you know, is is embodied and embedded to use, you know, some terms that come, people sometimes talk about as the inactive perspective or for e cognition, you know, embodied, embedded, extended and enacted.

[00:28:39] And there are, there are ways in which, even though the Buddhist were largely but not entirely, and the strand that I, you know, if we get to the end point here, I’ll eventually talk about there is a strand that becomes non-dual. Meaning there is, so there’s what’s called substance dualism, right? So you’ve got like matter and you’ve got, you’ve got material stuff and mind stuff, [00:29:00] and they are totally different kinds of stuff.

[00:29:03] So you can’t have minds if you don’t have mind stuff. Minds, consciousness can’t come from just matter, right? So that would be a substance dualism as opposed to some kind of a non-dual view, which could be, well, it’s all just matter and mind somehow emerges. Consciousness somehow is just of either epiphenomena or just some kind of phenomenon emerging from matter, or it’s all mind; everything is mind stuff, and you know, matter is just the way in which the mind stuff looks to us under certain conditions. But so there, you know, early bots were substance dualists and many, many Buddhist philosophers were at least as a matter of convenience, so to speak substance dualist, I should say. Buddhist philosophy is complicated because Buddhist philosophers, like the one I mentioned, will speak at different levels of analysis. It’s a little bit like, they’ll say, they’ll sort of use, you know, classical physics to talk about some stuff, and [00:30:00] then they’ll jump to the quantum level under certain conditions in order to talk about other things. And so, you know, there’s the idea that there’s just one account is there isn’t just one account. So they have different levels of analysis.

[00:30:14] But what the, I guess the main thing here is to say that the insight that the Buddhist in terms of causality, right? That the consciousness is causal. The additional insight there is that the only access we have to reality, quote unquote, is through consciousness. So that’s a very important point, which is going back to the idea of models. You know, we model reality. Reality is a model basically. It’s our model of trying to explain, like organize our experience. And, but what we’re working with there is always experience, is always in a, and experience meaning consciousness.

[00:30:56] So the idea that you could sort of do science without [00:31:00] consciousness, like, oh, we don’t need consciousness to do science. It’s incoherent because science is, you know, a human activity, a way of trying to understand what’s happening in the world. And all of that only happens within the context of consciousness.

[00:31:15] So part of what that means is, and this is something that, but the strong kind of dualism that we find in modernity, which has slowly been collapsing in late modernity, but like Cartesian dualism, you can’t, the idea that, you know, there’s a kind of, we’re just gonna ,come up with an objective account and in, in a sense, eliminate consciousness from the story is absurd. So actually understanding the nature of reality also requires understanding the nature of consciousness. We don’t understand that, it’s like we’re, you know, looking through a telescope at the world, but we have no idea how our telescope works. We just ignore the fact that the telescope is there as if the, what we’re seeing is the reality [00:32:00] itself.

[00:32:02] Al Scott: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely something that’s unexplained in science. I think there are certain aspects of science that are working on working towards consciousness. There’s a lot of strong work being done in neurobiology and you know, to elicit, you know, what causes consciousness, what interrupts consciousness, what are the weird things that can happen with consciousness? And I’m trying to explore some of these it’s definitely something that, that needs work. And is is a bit of an open field right now in terms of, you know, how does this arise? And, and you’re right, you know, is, is dualism correct? Is is everything consciousness, you know, is the panpsychism, the universe is consciousness? We don’t have to explain the hard problem of consciousness because it is everything? Versus the emergent people that, you know, everything is matter, and consciousness is a, is an epiphenomenon of, of processing in certain complex networks. And, you know, I’m, at this point I’m somewhat agnostic to all of these.

[00:32:55] Does, does Buddhism have say what’s the right path? Do they, is there [00:33:00] some enlightenment from Buddha that tells us what’s right?

[00:33:03] John Dunne: I wish… I mean there are, so one thing I will say that’s interesting actually is that the account of consciousness as a kind of causal process that’s embedded in a context and that’s always embodied… so minds, even for even the substance dualists among the bud, among the Buddhists will always say, you don’t have minds without bodies. Minds are always embodied. And part of what that means is that minds are always involved in a kind of emergent process actually, where they are the result of an of, and this would especially be the kind of philosophical strand that, that that Lama talks about, they’re always the result of the complex interaction of many different components. So the notion that what we think of as consciousness in our sort of ordinary waking experience can somehow be sort of extracted [00:34:00] from its physical manifestation or extracted from the body, you know, will just sort of fly free that’s just a delusion. Like it’s always embedded. It’s a complex interdependent phenomenon. And one way of simply saying it is that to be real is to be interdependent. So and there is no such thing as non-dependent entities on this particular account.

[00:34:27] So then when you think that, you start to inquire into the idea of like Panpsychism for example. One way of saying that, and this would be like I’ve been working a little bit with jut who’s here, I don’t know if you were familiar with him, but he has a well known theory called Integrated Information Theory. IIT is one of the theories about consciousness out there, and he says he’s a panist, but he like Gavin Strawson also, the philosoper, is, you know, that doesn’t mean that everything is consciousness actually on their view. So that would be more like a kind [00:35:00] of idealism where, as I was saying before, like every, you know, you can say there’s, there’s only one kind of stuff in the world, and that kind of stuff is mind or consciousness. But they would just say that consciousness is a, is an integral feature of the stuff of the universe, but it’s not the only kind of stuff. So, like Julio Tenony would, as I understand him, would say even like every, you know, little particle of, you know, in your headphones is all that matter also has, has a certain level of consciousness actually. But it’s sort of confusing to call it consciousness. It’s a lot of this is about how something can represent information or contain information. And it’s a little confusing because, you know, it’s not consciousness in the way we think of consciousness. But in order to get to that point, the matter has to be [00:36:00] arranged in a particular way. It’s gotta have certain types of connections that enable it to hold, in a sense, to represent, or maybe that’s not the right term, but to hold more information. And he has a term called phi, which talks about how different kinds of networks can relate to each other in such a way that they hold more and more information. The, and so it’s not just about like how many nodes you have, but it’s actually the architecture of the network that’s really important. And so then when you get at a certain point you have the right kind of network, then something that looks like what we would think of as consciousness emerges from that. But part of the way that’s happening is that there’s always a kind of element of consciousness, even in the matter itself, that it’s, you know, in, it’s, even when it’s not embedded inside of a network, but it’s still material. Right? So that’s a very interesting position that I find personally find kind of intriguing.

[00:36:56] It’s not dissimilar to a very late [00:37:00] Buddhist position that we find in the, in Buddhist tantras which is the kindness of tantric Buddhism develops at the end of the first millennium, and that’s where it goes on to Tibet. And very briefly, you know, the version of that is that instead of being substance duals, they say, well, everything is made out of the same kind of stuff. The metaphor they have for it is really a metaphor for energy. So everything, even the stuff that looks like it’s solid is all made out of energy. And minds are energy kind of in certain patterns. That’s what our mind is, that’s what consciousness is.

[00:37:37] Al Scott: It’s very correct from a physics standpoint too.

[00:37:39] John Dunne: Yeah. Right. So it’s like, it’s a very interesting idea.

[00:37:43] You know, obviously they’re not gonna be doing mathematics to talk about, you know, how those networks operate or the mathematics of complex dynamical systems or what have you. But there are certain kinds of intuitions that are intriguing that do, that do suggest certain roots.

[00:37:58] And one of those roots, by the [00:38:00] way, is also then what does it mean for us to be conscious? Like. What exactly do we mean from this? Remember, you know, again, science is always done from the standpoint of consciousness. So then the question is, well, what does it mean to feel like you’re conscious? What is that and how do you know that you’re conscious? I assume you’re conscious. Are you conscious Al?

[00:38:20] Al Scott: No, I mean, you know, we have this subjective experience. We believe that we, you know, other people similar to us share this subjectivity and we have this illusion of being a controller. You say that Buddhism says there is no controller, no volition, or I dunno if it means no volition.

[00:38:37] John Dunne: Well, it’s volition. There’s, yeah, there’s volition, there are desires, there’s motivations and so on. But it’s not like there’s a kind of a, you know, one way to think about this is even in terms of how contemporary neuroscience talks about brain function.

[00:38:51] There’s no part of the brain that controls the rest of the brain. But you know, if you think of the brain itself as a complex dynamical network, [00:39:00] then and one that is self organizing and able to respond to its environment, right, to maintain its autonomy, then or, you know, just to maintain its organization then there isn’t a, and that kind of a system, there’s no controlling part of that system, but the system nevertheless, is able to respond to different inputs. I see it can motivate itself to, you know to move in a particular direction. For example, if you’re, think of it like a, even a simple bacterium. Moving away from obnoxious substance and moving up a you know, like a glucose gradient. You know, it’s, that’s a kind of system. There’s no brain inside of that bacterium, but it’s able to, as a system, it’s able to interpret its environment and respond accordingly.

[00:39:45] So that’s the basic kind of image also of human consciousness. That it’s a complex, you know, Buddhists wouldn’t have this terminology, but it, the idea of a complex dynamical system is a good way, is a good analogy for the way Buddhist are talking about [00:40:00] consciousness.

[00:40:00] Al Scott: I, I like all of this, this, this discussion about momentary consciousness and, and causal streams and, you know, complex interactions as consciousness, but it would seem that that sort of a philosophy would be totally inconsistent with reincarnation.

[00:40:17] How does Buddhism assume? What is reincarnation in this case? What, what are we reincarnating?

[00:40:24] John Dunne: Yeah. So, you know, reincarnation is a there’s a sort of, you remember like different levels of talking lift, levels of analysis. So one simple level is, oh, you know, Al you were, you know, I don’t know, you were a, a a great situar player in your previous life and you know, we can kind of make up stories of who you were in all of your previous lives, kind of like the Shirley McLean version of reincarnation, you know, And we identify you and different lifetimes and say, Oh, you have this issue and that issue because I don’t know, you play, you practice sitar too high, too hard, and now you [00:41:00] get headaches and I, whatever it is, right?

[00:41:01] So we have we can have an idea that there’s this person who’s kind of flowing through time. But actually that’s a folk level then you do find that in Buddhist texts and in Buddhist cultures, a kind of folk level of this idea of reincarnation. But the more technical level for Buddhists would be that the, you know, the person like me, John Dunne, is not gonna be reborn because John Dunn is the, is a name for, you know, consciousness in this particular kind of body. It’s not just name for consciousness. It’s a name for this embodied being and this time and place, and that’s never gonna happen again. So reincarnation isn’t that there’s a single person kind of flowing through time. One metaphor is if you take a candle and you have another candle, you, you light a candle and you’ve got another one nearby, and just as you’re [00:42:00] putting out the one, you’ll let it light the other one.

[00:42:04] So is it the same flame or a different flame, Right? That’s one traditional metaphor and it’s kind of like, well, it’s like yes and no, right? There’s continuity, but there’s not identity. So the basic idea here is that there’s a causal flow, and that causal flow continues now at a trivial level, that we all know that that’s already the case.

[00:42:29] We all agree with that because, for example, all of your podcasts are presumably gonna be around, you know, after you’re gone. Especially if we set up an antenna and, and like, you know, maybe we should transmit them out into the cosmos and then I, those radio waves, they’ll maintain a certain amount of coherence for a while and you know, so it’s all in the stuff of our bodies. It’s not like it’s just gonna disappear. So we leave all [00:43:00] kinds of traces that continue. We leave traces in each other memories and thoughts, feelings. We leave, you know, writings and recordings impacts on our environment on our societies, on our families. So all of, there’s all, there’s all kinds of continuity already.

[00:43:16] And that’s, so part of it is really part of the like more sophisticated way of understanding we’re incarnation is thinking in terms of that kind of continuity. Right. Then on top of it then, no question Buddhist are also gonna assert that there is some kind of continuity of the stuff of consciousness itself.

[00:43:36] Like, and using that energy metaphor that they talk about, that there is some kind of energy that persists and that that energy is gonna go on to then Be manifested in a, in in another life. It’s again, not the same person. But it is a, you know, there is a continuity of that energy and obviously that part is very hard to establish [00:44:00] empirically pretty clearly.

[00:44:03] But that would be the, the notion that there’s some kind of a continuity of the energy. And again, you know, the idea that there’s continuity for us, like genetic continuity, you know, they talk about karma, we talk about genes and culture, you know, all that stuff. In some ways we already accept. But the, that we are the products of a particular kind of genetic heritage and cultural heritage the products of a certain educational system of our past experiences.

[00:44:29] And that, you know, there’s a kind of causal flow, which is the expression of our manifestation as beings in the world. But then they questioned what happens after death. Is you know, saying that there’s some kind of, I don’t know, quantum packet of energy that continues, that gets a little harder to just make sense of from an empirical standpoint.

[00:44:51] Although we are doing research on a very peculiar phenomenon is on a phenomenon when practitioners engage in [00:45:00] certain kinds of meditation the goal is to be maintain awareness into the death process. And then what we see is I mean, this part is the case that there are people who who are clinically dead, but they don’t go into rigor mortis. They don’t exhibit, you know, a normal rate of decomposition or really even any decomposition for some days. And they sometimes, and they look like they don’t look dead, frankly. And they will remain like that sometimes for, you know, two, three weeks. Often shorter, but, and these cases are documented. But we’ve been trying to, you know, we’ve done some, the only paper we’ve published so far on this is a negative finding, which is basically given the, you know, technology we have and the conditions in the field we have no evidence of any brain function occurring, even at a very subtle level. [00:46:00] At least nothing that we could measure.

[00:46:04] Al Scott: That’s good that you’re investigating this empirically. That’s I think maybe why Buddhism resonates with a lot of scientists in, in physicists, especially some, I’ve seen several authors in, in papers and books have pointed out parallels between Buddhist thought and our understanding of modern physics. You know, the, and, and the things that I was talking to you about Penrose previously and thought that there’s also I’ve read the, the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, the idea that nothing has an intrinsic nature aligns well with quantum physics. The idea that basic particles don’t have physical trajectories you know, we’ve experimented on them. If you’re not observing them, they don’t really exist. And they can switch forms seemingly at random between, you know, as long as the energy is conserved, their form is, is uncertain until they’re observed. So it’s, it’s quite interesting that there are some of these parallels and I think that [00:47:00] that’s the fact that you don’t have to have a belief probably resonates well with a scientific mindset of, of skepticism.

[00:47:07] John Dunne: Yeah, I’d say that, I mean one of the great examples of that recently is Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland, I don’t know if you’ve seen that book, but there he talks a lot about a particular Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Highly recommend that book. I had, we just had a conference actually at Berkeley organized by Bob Sharp, professor at Berkeley of Buddhism, and we just had a sort of, I forget exactly what it was called, but it was sort of quantum physics and Buddhism 2.0. And we had Chris Fukes there who was the one of the real, you know, founders of the cubism interpretation. And then Carlo Rovelli was there, is who has this relative you know, I forget for some reason of relational interpretation. I think that’s what he calls it. He’s, you know, the way he put it was you know, he developed this interpretation, which I’ll describe in a moment. He finally discovers Nagarjuna is, you know, this Buddhist [00:48:00] philosopher, and he finally sits down to read it and it totally, he couldn’t believe it actually. How much alignment there was for his philosophy or how motivated, in a sense it made him to work out certain issues.

[00:48:12] So and in short, there’s no such thing as something that is not empty. In other words, to, to be real, to, to exist, to, to be able to say that something is existent, to make sense of that term to the, of that model, right? Say, oh, this exists. The only way we can make sense of that is if that thing is not existing in and of itself in, in a sense in isolation, that the only way things that can exist is in relation to each other. The only way they can have identities is in relation to each other. So when we say they’re empty, what we mean is they’re empty of any kind of fixed non relational identity. And, and the only kind of [00:49:00] identity have they have is an interdependent identity. And so Carlo took that idea and you know, in his account, the, as you said, you know, like the it’s only when it, when the quantum effect is observed, when a quantum level of phenomena is observed that then it has a fixed identity. Otherwise it’s in, like, in a superposition for example,

[00:49:22] One solution, I don’t know if I fully understand, or, and to the extent I understand it, where I fully accept this solution, but one solution to this is simply to say that all things are already in relation to each other. Not all things, but things are already in relation to each other. So within those networks of relations, they have identities.

[00:49:41] But the question is, you know which relation, which network? So from the standpoint of one network, a thing can have a fixed identity, but because it’s not in relation to another network, it seems to lack that kind of a fixed identity. So no thing has a fixed identity [00:50:00] outside of a network, but within a network it has an identity, right?

[00:50:03] It has a, you know it’s not in a superposition. But those networks are not necessarily in relation to each. So even inanimate things, things can be in relation to each other.

[00:50:14] And so instead of just like, it’s not just about an observer, it’s about, you know, just being in relation. And the observer plays a role in the sense that when the observer is part of the network, that that you know, it determines or that permits that identity to be manifest. It’s certainly an interpretation that many people are finding compelling.

[00:50:35] I, again, to the extent I understand it. For me, part of it is I think there’s too much concern about, you know, the threat of idealism. Because again, you know, maybe a rock can be in relation to other rocks and you know, the quantum level of phenomena we’re in question are determined in relation to the other things they are related to in a network. But quantum physics is done by [00:51:00] humans in human minds. And so the model of quantum physics and, you know, the collapse of the wave function doesn’t really seem to me to make a lot of sense if we are not talking about human minds as part of that network.

[00:51:14] Al Scott: Yeah, you definitely have to have a model of the observer in your description of an experiment, and that’s something that’s been pointed out.

[00:51:24] John Dunne: So I just encourage you to have a look at Helga Land and make sense of it yourself, but also Chris Fuss. You know, this is what I like about Cubism is that it, it doesn’t just try to sort of eliminate the role of human consciousness without turning it into some kind of a magical, you know, solution to the problems of quantum physics.

[00:51:46] Al Scott: This has been very interesting. I’ve learned quite a bit in this discussion, and I think we’re getting towards the end of our time slot here. So I’d like to thank you for coming on and, and enlightening us towards the Buddhist way. I’m gonna send you a [00:52:00] a t-shirt for the rational view for coming on.

[00:52:02] John Dunne: Oh, thanks.

[00:52:03] Al Scott: To express my appreciation of, of your time. And before I sign off there’s one question I ask a lot of my contributors. What what science fiction are you interested in? Are you a reader of science fiction?

[00:52:14] John Dunne: Oh, yes. I’m quite a bit of a fan. Let’s see. You know, I liked well, I just finally finished watching The Expanse.

[00:52:23] I’d read the books, so, and I, my friend, I don’t know if you know Adam Frank, the Astrophysicist, but he’s a, he’s a, he really encouraged me to he’s a very interesting fellow. He’s got he did some blogging. He’s worked for npr, the New York Times and stuff. Very interesting guy. And so he encouraged me in the expance, which I really enjoyed.

[00:52:43] I liked Andy Wears, you know, the margin, of course. But then there was this new one that I really enjoyed and I’m can’t remember the name of it right now. About, I don’t wanna, I don’t want to do a spoiler. So Andy Wears book about encountering [00:53:00] aliens. I’ll just say that much. Okay. I wish I could remember the title. That was one I just read recently and I’ve been working through some of Ted Changs stories also. So yeah, I’m, you know, go way back and scifi and that was certainly part of the reason I wanted to be a astronaut. Right. I was kind of a treky and all that stuff. And so there you go.

[00:53:22] Al Scott: Sure, sure.

[00:53:23] All right. Well, thank, thank you very much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

[00:53:27] John Dunne: All right. Take care. I’ll see you later. Bye-bye now.

[00:53:29] Bye-bye.

[00:53:33] If you’d like to follow up with more in depth discussions, please come find us on Facebook at the Rational view and join our discussion group. If you like what you’re hearing, please consider visiting my patron page: @patron.podbean.com/therationalview. Thanks for listening.

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